A recent statement by the top UN official from the US, Richard Holbrooke, that UN troops may be partly responsible for the spread of AIDS around the world has added fuel to rumors that Untac troops brought the disease to Cambodia.
Before Untac arrived in Cambodia in 1992, AIDS was virtually undetected here. In 1994, the year after it left, there were an estimated 44,700 cases of infection, a rate of just over 1 percent. In 1998, that figure had jumped to 3.7 percent, the highest rate of infection in Asia, according to the World Health Organization in 1998.
The timing of the epidemic has led many to believe that the disease was brought by the 20,000 peacekeepers stationed here under Untac.
Holbrooke, a UN ambassador, said the disease is known to be being spread by the sex-trade and by truck routes but also by military and police forces.
“I regret to say that AIDS is being spread, among other people, by peacekeepers,” Holbrooke said while emphasizing the importance of combating AIDS, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, published in the US state of Minnesota.
However, Geoff Manthey, country director in Cambodia for UNAIDS, denies that Untac was responsible.
“It was one-way traffic out of the country,” Manthey said Tuesday. “Some of the peacekeepers went home HIV-positive when they came here HIV-negative.”
No comprehensive studies of rates of infection have been done. HIV testing among UN troops is not compulsory, so testing is done voluntarily by individual countries, and statistics are piecemeal, sources agree.
But the proof, Manthey says, is in the serology. Troops returning home who tested positive to HIV carried a virulent strand of the virus—subtype E—that is unique to Southeast Asia and is the prevalent form of the disease in Cambodia. The troops could not have brought this strand of the disease from home or from countries where they were stationed previously, he said.
Manthey’s argument was supported by several other health agencies, including CARE, Medicins Sans Frontieres and the National AIDS authority.
Manthey and others point to a range of reasons to explain the rise of AIDS during the Untac period.
The absence of adequate infrastructure made it almost impossible to test for the disease and work to prevent it, said Tia Phalla, secretary-general of the National AIDS Authority.
He added that the epidemic was an almost inevitable consequence of an indigenous culture of widespread prostitution combined with the sudden influx of people from neighboring countries, where the epidemic had already taken hold.
Yet rumors that peacekeepers brought AIDS here persist. Prime Minister Hun Sen, when asked after the 1998 general election what Untac had given Cambodia, replied “AIDS.”
Beat Richner, head of Kantha Bopha Hospital, insists that the coincidence in timing is sufficient proof.
“This is proved,” he said Tuesday. “Before there was no HIV—’92, ’93, ’94 we had no new cases [at Kantha Bopha]. At the end of ’94, it started.”
He also blamed Untac troops for the explosion of the sex trade, which is widely blamed for the spread of AIDS. The troops were exorbitantly paid, had plenty of leisure and regarded it as “their human rights to go to brothels,” he said.
He rejected Manthey’s claim that Untac could not have brought the disease here because it is a unique strain. He pointed out that some of the troops were from Southeast Asian nations, and said all of them had the money, and probably the inclination, to visit brothels in cities such as Bangkok.