The head of the government’s HIV and AIDS authority on Wednesday defended the decision to cease blood testing in a Kandal provincial village where an NGO identified a potential outbreak of the virus earlier this month, despite accepting that the group’s findings may have been correct.
Tests conducted in Sambuor Meas commune’s Peam village by NGO Khemara on February 13 found a worrying number of previously unknown cases of HIV. Those who tested positive, along with concerned neighbors, went to be tested at Samdech Euv referral hospital in Phnom Penh, which ultimately confirmed 10 new cases in Peam village and four more in two neighboring villages.
Officials from the Ministry of Health’s National Center for HIV/ AIDS, Dermatology and STD Control (NCHADS) and provincial health department carried out their own tests on Monday, finding four positive cases in 279 people—about a quarter of the village’s population.
Ly Penh Sun, the head of NCHADS, said others who now wished to know their status would have to travel about 10 km to be tested at the commune health center.
“We are not refuting the figure found by the NGO, but that does not mean that everyone in Peam village is HIV positive like the the media has claimed,” said Dr. Penh Sun.
“We are worried about HIV across the country. We are not concerned with only a small village in Kandal province.”
Mr. Penh Sun said NCHADS could not be sure Khemara’s results were accurate as the NGO had conducted the tests independently and without official oversight, a claim refuted by the NGO.
“We asked the village chief Oung Khan and he agreed with us,” said Pisei Chan, HIV/AIDS coordinator for Khemara. “But he did not admit this when the upper levels asked.”
Marie-Odile Emond, UNAIDS country director, said that as free HIV testing facilities were “widely available,” the decision by health officials to stop testing in the village was in line with her organization’s guidelines.
“It remains available as it was before, including in this area, for anyone who wishes to know his/her status,” Ms. Emond said by email.
Yim Bunthorn, director of the Sambour Meas commune health center, said that on Tuesday and yesterday his clinic had only administered HIV tests to nine people from Peam village—all of whom tested negative—and attributed the small number to hurdles faced by villagers.
“I think that villagers are not coming to get blood tests at the Sambour Meas health center because most of them work as garment workers,” he said. “I also think that a shortage of motorbikes for traveling is a reason.”
According to Vora Tim, executive director of the HIV/AIDS Coordinating Committee, which oversees groups working in the sector, the government has a responsibility to test all residents of Peam village and to identify the source of the virus.
“We are afraid it will be the same case as Battambang,” he said, referring to an outbreak in the province’s Roka commune, discovered in December 2014, in which about 270 people were found to be infected by an unlicensed doctor that reused needles and syringes.
“Local authorities should continue blood testing,” he added. “If more people got tests, we would know the root cause of the HIV/ AIDS outbreak in that village.”