Debate Surrounds National AIDS Awareness

Health care workers, government officials and social workers debated Thursday the accuracy of a government claim that the vast majority of Cambodians are properly educated about HIV and AIDS.

Ministry of Health Secretary of State Mam Bun Heng said Wednes­­­­day that some 95 percent of Cambodians now have the pro­per knowledge and understanding of the implications and causes of HIV and AIDS and have stopped discriminating against the infected, according to a 2002 report.

“I don’t think this is realistic,” said Medicines sans Frontiers Chief of Mission Catherine Quill­et. More than half of the patients the medical group treats “have no idea about the virus and come to us at a very late stage of the disease…. They arrive because they are sick not because [they think] they have AIDS. ” She added that the group often must explain to the victims’ families what the disease entails.

According to Mean Chhi Vun, deputy director general of the Na­tional Center for HIV/AIDS, the figures come in part from a draft report of “Community Action for Preventing HIV/AIDS Project.” The study reveals that 97.5 percent of all women surveyed and 98.6 of men have “ever heard about HIV/AIDS”

The survey was based on interviews with 3,848 Cambodians from Koh Kong, Prey Veng, Svay Rieng and Battambang provinces. Demographic groups included sex workers, casino workers and seafarers.

The government has estimated that some 164,000 Cambodians have HIV or AIDS.

Since 1991, when the first AIDS case was reported in Cambodia, “the government of Cambodia, the UN, the international community, the donors and civil society has put a lot of effort into information and education,” said Mean Chhi Vun.

Pok Panhavichetr, executive di­rec­tor of the Khmer HIV/AIDS NGO alliance offers a qualified agreement with the government’s findings.

“Yes, we agree,” that knowledge of the disease is prevalent, she said. “But there is still a gap be­tween knowledge and practice.” For example, people may know how HIV/AIDS is transmitted, but are still unwilling to use a condom. “Changing of behavior is still limited,” she said.

The draft report indicates that 93.5 percent of all males surveyed said they always used a condom during intercourse. However, Mean Chhi Vun conceded that it is “hard to know” if they are telling the truth.

Discrimination against those infected with HIV/AIDS does not seem to be stemmed by simple knowledge of the disease, and, Khana’s Pok Panhavichetr feels that discrimination is still an issue. “They still feel a stigma,” she said, and “they don’t speak about it openly. Often they wait until they almost die.”

Nay Seng, 41, is living with AIDS in Russei Keo district. She says that her neighbors treated her kindly until she revealed that she had contracted HIV. “Then the villagers began to discriminate against me.  Now they don’t allow their children to come to my house, and nobody wants to marry my daughter because I am HIV-positive,” she said.

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