Marchers Demand Access to AIDS Medicine

It’s still common in Cambodia for people to be fired from their job or expelled from their homes because they have AIDS, experts say.

But discrimination didn’t stop Chhor Veasna from marching through the streets of Phnom Penh Tuesday and demanding access to AIDS drugs.

“I want to encourage AIDS patients to not feel hopeless,” the 33-year-old construction worker said.

Between 300 and 500 marchers called on the government and NGOs to ensure access to anti-retroviral drugs.

“[People with AIDS] need priority for needs like anti-retrovirals and treatment, and an end of discrimination,” said Heng Sokrithy of the Cambodia People Living with HIV/AIDS Network, which organized the march.

In other countries, people with HIV and AIDS have marched to demand respect and health care since the 1980s, when the disease was new. But Cambodia HIV-watchers say this is the first example of Cambodians taking such action.

“People with AIDS are appearing on newspapers and on TV, with no need to cover their face,” said Tia Phalla, secretary-general of the National AIDS Authority. “The society is more accepting because discrimination must be replaced by understanding and compassion. Without taking care of these people we cannot deal with this epidemic.”

The march ended at the site of the second National AIDS Conference, where marchers demonstrated for Cambodia to take measures similar to other developing countries that have made anti-retrovirals available cheaply or for free.

The government and NGOs have been credited with reducing the prevalence of HIV in the population through prevention. But treatment has been largely ignored, said Misha Coleman of the Policy Project, an NGO that assisted the network.

Only 16 percent of HIV/AIDS money last year went to treatment, she said. More than $30 million will flow through Cambodia for AIDS prevention or treatment next year, she said.

The anti-retroviral drugs pay for themselves because they allow people to work or care for children and keep them out of hospitals, Coleman said. They also reduce the amount of virus in the bloodstream, reducing the chance of spreading the infection.

“Everybody says it costs so much [to treat], but the costs of not providing treatment are a lot higher,” Coleman said.

The marchers called for Cambodia to offer subsidies on the drugs, lift duties or receive permission to produce generic forms of the drugs.

The marchers’ statement also called on the government to regulate the anti-retrovirals now available in pharmacies. Many take the drug improperly, said Kim Green, HIV/AIDS program coordinator for CARE in Cambodia.

If not taken correctly, the drugs are ineffective and make the user—and anyone he or she may infect—resistant to the drug, she said.

Tia Phalla said the government was applying for funding from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to buy the drugs, and is setting up a working group that will discuss the drugs’ availability at pharmacies.


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