HIV Testing Halted Despite Apparent Outbreak

The Kandal provincial health department has called off testing residents of a village where an NGO discovered an apparent outbreak of HIV earlier this month, instead asking villagers to voluntarily seek testing if they remain concerned.

Employees of the NGO Khemara conducted field HIV tests of residents of Mok Kampoul district’s Sambuor Meas commune on February 13, International Condom Day, and found a higher than usual prevalence, leading others in the area to seek testing at the Samdech Euv referral hospital in Phnom Penh.

As of this weekend, 14 new cases had been confirmed in the commune, 10 of them in Peam village alone. On Monday, provincial health officials began their own testing in the village, saying that they could not trust the NGO’s findings because the government did not sanction its tests.

But after testing less than 280 of the approximately 1,000 residents of the village, and finding four positive cases, the provincial health department director decided not to carry on testing on Tuesday because no locals were coming out to have their blood checked in the late afternoon on Monday.

“We stopped testing blood for people in Peam village [on Monday] because we waited until 4:30 p.m. but we didn’t see more people volunteering to come to get blood testing from us,” said Kuoy Bunthoeun, the director.

Despite testing only a quarter of the village’s residents, Dr. Bunthoeun said the fact that only four positive results were found on Mon­day suggested that concerns of an outbreak were unfounded.

“We are not able to accept the results given by Khemara because they did not cooperate with the pro­vincial health department, but we are going to compare the figure with this organization,” he said, referring to the four HIV cases the ministry discovered on Monday.

Sambuor Meas commune chief Nem Yong said another reason pro­vincial health officials stopped the blood testing in the area was because it is too far away.

“We told people to go for blood testing at the Sambuor Meas commune health center because it is too far for provincial health department and Ministry of Health [officials] to travel,” she said.

Among those who have tested positive for HIV this month is 45-year-old Chea Sophat, who said it was unlikely that people in Peam village would make the trip to the commune health center for further testing.

“I think that villagers will not go for blood testing at the Sambuor Meas commune health center because the center is far away, about 10 km away from the village,” he said.

While health officials appeared willing to leave residents of Peam village on their own to figure out if there is an HIV outbreak in their community, the head of one of the country’s most prominent HIV and AIDS organizations said further studies should be conducted.

Choub Sok Chamreun, executive director of Khana, an NGO working on HIV prevention and care, said all the positive cases identified by Khemara were later confirmed at state health clinics and that the village now had a total of 28 people living with HIV, well above the national average prevalence of 0.6 percent.

“I think, technically, there should be a further study, some study to look at the number of transmissions. It is alarming,” he said.

Officials with the two state bodies overseeing HIV prevention efforts—the the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD Control, and the National AIDS Authority—could not be reached.

(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)

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