Although there have been numerous government and NGO-sponsored campaigns to educate Cambodians about HIV/AIDS, little information has been made available to patients about anti-retroviral drugs, according to Dr Suos Prem Prey, a physician at Sihanouk Hospital Center of Hope’s HIV/AIDS Department.
The benefits and pitfalls of treating HIV/AIDS victims with foreign-produced anti-retroviral AIDS drugs was the topic of a recent four-day workshop at the Khmer HIV/AIDS NGO Alliance’s Phnom Penh office.
“Most of the workshop participants did not fully understand what anti-retrovirals can do,” he said. “For example, a quarter of the participants said they thought anti-retroviral drugs can cure AIDS.”
Expensive French-made anti-retroviral drugs have been available in Phnom Penh’s markets, pharmacies and private clinics for several years. The drugs can prolong a patient’s life for years, but require a strict, regular pill-taking regimen that can produce serious side effects.
Earlier this year, Indian pharmaceutical company Cipla announced it would ship generic versions of the drugs to Cambodia at cut-rate prices. Healol Pharmaceuticals Import-Export director Sandeep Majumdar said his company began distributing the Cipla drugs to private clinics and pharmacies three months ago.
In July, Medecins Sans Frontieres France began treating a limited number of AIDS patients in Phnom Penh with drugs bought directly from Cipla. The prospect of wider availability and possible misuse of the anti-retroviral drugs has worried government and NGO officials. Doctors overseeing the anti-retroviral treatment regimen continually vary the dosage and types of drugs in order to avoid the development of resistance. Patients who misuse the drugs can pass on a mutant, drug-resistant HIV strain.
“Most Cambodians with HIV cannot afford this kind of medicine. But sometimes people will buy enough for only a few months,” Chhim Sarath said.
“We told them they need money to buy the treatment for at least two years. If they just use for a short time, and without good follow-up [from trained doctors], then it can be very dangerous.”
Heng Sok Rithy, an HIV patient from Sihanoukville, said he knows of people who have sold their land and all of their possessions to buy anti-retrovirals. Other patients turn to ineffective Khmer traditional medicine practitioners when they don’t have the money to buy anti-retrovirals, he said.
The Ministry of Health is expected to finalize government guidelines on the usage of anti-retroviral drugs by the end of this month, according to the ministry’s director-general for health promotion, Dr Eng Huot.
Thirty HIV/AIDS victims from Phnom Penh, Battambang and Kompong Cham provinces also learned about the effects of Khmer traditional medicine and how to maintain general health in order to ward off the infections that usually come with AIDS.
The 30 workshop participants are leaders of networks of people living with HIV/AIDS. The networks provide information, home health care and other support services to fellow patients. Together, the 30 participants can reach more than 1000 people, said Khana senior program officer Dr Chhim Sarath.
A National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD study released in May estimated there are 168,000 adults with HIV in Cambodia, or 2.8 percent of the population. The rate at which HIV patients are developing AIDS has accelerated in recent years, officials have said.