Hundreds Join AIDS Vigil, But Issues Remain

Joining hundreds of Cambo­dians who gathered Friday even­ing for a vigil to remember those who have died of AIDS, 38-year-old motorbike taxi driver Yim Vanded said that he had heard of a new drug that can cure the disease—but only for the rich.

“I heard that it can cure AIDS, but its very expensive,” Yim Van­ded said. “Only the rich people can afford that. The poor will still die of AIDS.”

Confusion over AIDS drug cock­tails remains a major concern for health officials, as does ignorance of the disease in general. And while interviews indicate that some people are aware of—or even educated about—AIDS and medicine, most are not. AIDS has killed around 15,000 people nationwide, according to the Na­tional Center for HIV/AIDS, Der­m­atology and STDs.

Yim Vanded’s views were re­flect­ed by others interviewed at the country’s second candlelight vigil. Several said they were un­sure how the new drugs work. Some said they thought it was ef­fective in preventing the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. And most said they thought the drug would be out of reach for poor people.

Those interviewed who work in­side human rights or health agencies were well-informed. But among onlookers on the outskirts of the ceremony, there was less knowledge about the disease.

Lak Ponn, a 28-year-old student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said he knows the medicine available now cannot cure AIDS.

“It only [lengthens] the life of people who take it,” he said, add­ing that some people misunderstand and believe the medicine stops the spread of HIV from person to person.

Dispelling ignorance and stigmas about HIV and AIDS was a main goal for the organizers of Fri­day’s vigil. Health and human rights officials and highly regarded monks joined together with casual observers.

“We want to remind people that preventable diseases like HIV should be known,” said Dr Tia Phalla, deputy secretary-general of the National AIDS authority. Ig­norance and discrimination ag­ainst those with HIV infections only serves “to generate the spread of the disease,” he said.

With more awareness of the dan­gers of exposure, he said, there is acceptance, and with that comes a change of behavior.

The number of HIV positive cases declined in 2000 to 169,000, down from 170,000 the year be­fore, according to Dr Lan Vanseng of the NCHADS.

That’s just part, however, of a 10-year cycle the country is experiencing, Tia Phalla said. The number of HIV positive cases are declining, but the number of AIDS deaths are increasing, he said.

Some came to the vigil with slogans, as others carried signs with blown-up pictures of dead relatives.

Yem Sokha, a man watching Friday’s vigil, said he had lost two relatives to AIDS. He said he knew there were drugs to slow the progress of the disease, but only for the rich.

“The poor, with no money, they will die soon,” he said. “It will be the same.”


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