Police and health officials are expressing concern that drug use among Cambodia’s youth is contributing to the spread of HIV.
Many young people, after they have taken amphetamine pills, consider their partners to be very “lovely” and without disease, explained Neak Yuthea, the education and prevention coordinator for the National Authority for Combating Drugs.
“When they are high on drugs, they can’t control themselves and have sex without condoms,” he said.
Another problem is the sharing of hypodermic needles among drug users, Neak Yuthea said. When injecting drugs into their bloodstreams, they run a high risk of infecting each other with HIV.
National AIDS Authority Deputy Director Dr Mean Chhivun said government health officials are also concerned about teen-agers contracting HIV while under the influence of drugs.
NGOs and the Ministry of Health have not yet conducted a survey on the issue, but drug-taking youth who fall into sex without using a condom is nonetheless a “major worry,” he said.
“When they are using drugs, they are happy and do not think about anything,” he said.
Another concern for officials is the possibility that more drug-using Cambodians will begin using needles to inject drugs, Mean Chhivun said. In some countries, like Russia, needle-sharing among drug users has been a major conduit for the spread of HIV.
Currently, most drug-users in Cambodia either smoke or swallow their drugs. And most HIV-positive Cambodians contracted the virus that causes AIDS through heterosexual contact.
For some time now, the government and its ministries have been trying to crack down on drug use among the nation’s youth, but they have achieved little, Neak Yuthea said. Now the NACD has begun an awareness program to educate people about the dangers of drugs.
Neak Yuthea said people are often ignorant about the health effects of popular drugs. They think drugs such as amphetamine pills are vitamins that give them physical power.
When people first start taking amphetamine pills, they feel strong and full of energy. But then their appetite disappears, and they cannot eat. Then if the use continues, the drug wears down the lungs or liver or other vital organs until it takes a person’s life, Neak Yuthea said.
He warned that “yama”—a type of amphetamine produced cheaply in Cambodia and often brought illegally into the country from Thailand—also makes its users feel invincible, but its physical impact is more devastating than other amphetamines. Yama’s physical damage can frequently be irreversible, according to Neak Yuthea.
“It’s confusing for people who think these drugs are great medicines,” Neak Yuthea said.
Ouk Panha, 14, lives at Mith Samlanh/Friends, a shelter for street youths. He said two years ago he took amphetamine pills for strength and energy. Eventually, he became so weak that it pained him to move. Now Ouk Panha works as an anti-drug activist at Mith Samlanh/Friends. He said he tells his friends about the dangers of drugs and asks them to avoid them.
“Some of my friends never use condoms when they have sex with their lovers,” Ouk Panha said. “Nothing is more painful than trying to give up drugs.”
Neak Yuthea said NACD is preparing a schedule to train medical personnel from the National Maternal and Child Center. The program will be modeled after a successful program in Siem Reap province. Another drug awareness program supported by the World Health Organization is under way in Battambang province.
Phnom Penh Judicial Police Chief Heng Pov said he is also worried about drug use. But he said he is more concerned about drug-related crimes than he is about the spread of HIV.
When people are addicted to drugs, Heng Pov said, they will do anything to support their habits. Often they steal money to afford their drugs.
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara said he will enlist the help of regular citizens to stop young people from using drugs. “We will give rice to people to look after youths on drugs,” he said.