Lawmakers Press Minister Over HIV Outbreak

Health Minister Mam Bunheng appeared Tuesday before the National Assembly’s public health commission, which asked him to create a budget package to support struggling villagers in Battambang province’s Roka commune, where a mysterious outbreak of HIV has stricken more than 220 people.

The cause of the epidemic remains unknown, but officials have pinned the blame on Yem Chrin, an unlicensed doctor who regularly treated villagers using injections and has admitted to reusing syringes on multiple occasions.

Health Minister Mam Bunheng speaks to reporters at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh on Tuesday after being questioned by the assembly's health commission about the HIV outbreak in Battambang province's Roka commune. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Health Minister Mam Bunheng speaks to reporters at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh on Tuesday after being questioned by the assembly’s health commission about the HIV outbreak in Battambang province’s Roka commune. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The provincial court jailed Mr. Chrin on murder charges on December 22.

A survey of villagers in the commune, which was led by the Ministry of Health and completed earlier this month, concluded that that the virus was most likely transmitted via injections or intravenous drips.

Following Tuesday’s closed-door meeting, Mr. Bunheng told reporters that the number of infected villagers has now reached 226, and said his ministry was working with the Interior Ministry to ensure a similar situation does not occur elsewhere.

“We are taking measures to review private [health] services and unlicensed doctors,” he said. “And to encourage people to use the public health system.”

Mr. Bunheng said local officials failed to inform his ministry about Mr. Chrin, who had been treating villagers in the area for more than 20 years.

“I did not receive documents from the lower levels,” he said. “If we knew him, we would have taken measures to address this problem.”

The health minister did not say whether he would follow through on the commission’s request that he set aside funds to help support the infected villagers, 78 of whom were already on anti-retroviral therapy by the end of December.

Ke Sovannaroth, a CNRP lawmaker who heads the commission, said after the meeting that additional government funds were needed because some infected villagers in Roka commune are no longer able to work after beginning therapy.

“We requested that His Excellency Health Minister [Mr. Bunheng] request that the government create a special budget package because now villagers in Roka commune cannot make a living,” she said. “His Excellency will bring this information to tell the government.”

Ms. Sovannaroth said her committee also requested that Mr. Bunheng increase the number of health officials training doctors in public hospitals, to ensure better care and stronger alternatives to private doctors.

A 58-year-old woman who is among the Roka residents who have tested positive for HIV said she has not been able to return to her work since beginning anti-retroviral therapy.

“When I take the medicine, I am exhausted and hot,” said the woman, who used to spend her days selling bananas at a local market. “Since I got HIV, I cannot go to do any work and I have become weaker and weaker.”

She said she hopes the government will provide her with at least $50 per month so she can provide food for her family, which includes two grandchildren under the age of 12 who have also contracted HIV.

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