More than two months after the eviction of HIV/AIDS patients from Borei Keila, the men at the helms of both the National AIDS Authority and UNAIDS Cambodia toured the community’s much criticized relocation site for the first time on Friday. Tony Lisle, country coordinator for UNAIDS, and Dr Teng Kunthy, secretary-general of the NAA, were trailed by reporters and NGO workers as they visited the site at Tuol Sambou village in Dangkao district, home to 55 HIV/AIDS patients.
The relocation site has been repeatedly denounced by local and international human rights groups for isolating infected people in an “AIDS colony” far from medical treatment and income opportunities in Phnom Penh. In July, more than 150 international HIV/AIDS organizations and concerned individuals signed on to a letter raising alarm over the living conditions at the site.
Both Mr Lisle and Dr Kunthy justified the two-month delay in their visits by explaining that representatives of their organizations had traveled there numerous times. “I’ve sent my staff two times already…. Me or somebody else is not very important,” said Dr Kunthy.
The two men also expressed their commitment to preventing a similar state of affairs unfolding again.
“The National AIDS Authority will try to avoid the same situation in the future,” Dr Kunthy said.
Mr Lisle, who declined to speak on the record with reporters during his tour of the site, said later that the UN “would never condone this sort of activity again,” while expressing concerns about food security and access to medical treatment.
That was a change in tone for Mr Lisle–after the eviction of Borei Keila on June 18, he told reporters he was satisfied that the needs of the community would be met at Tuol Sambou.
“The most important thing for UNAIDS is guarantees that communities have access to treatment, and that they will not be discriminated against, wherever they are,” he said at the time. “The government…have been very clear that there will not be a cessation of access to treatment.”
Dr Kunthy also acknowledged that residents of Tuol Sambou had problems ranging from a broken water pump to plain discrimination. However, he added that, “Rome was not built in only one day.”
He compared the site to living conditions in remote provinces like Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri. “You can see that many people don’t have what these people do,” he said.
The visit of the two men coincided with the release yesterday of a joint field report written by four local HIV/AIDS NGOs, which said that the community at Tuol Sambou has, “urgent short-term needs–for food, clean drinking water, income, and relief from heat.”
The report also mentioned that some residents have noted a drop in their CD4 levels, which measure the concentration of white blood cells that are crucial to the body’s immune system and act as an indicator of the health of HIV/AIDS patients.
Mr Lisle said that he had heard reports of dropping CD4 levels at Tuol Sambou. “That’s an issue related to food security,” he explained.
According to the World Health Organization, normal adults have CD4 levels ranging between 500 and 1,500 cells per cubic millimeter of blood.
Dan Yan, a 39-year-old patient, said that her CD4 levels have dropped from 480 cells per cubic millimeter to 220 since she moved to Tuol Sambou.
“Our CD4s are dramatically declining, which is proof that our health is being destroyed,” she said, blaming the situation on a lack of food.
“My CD4 is getting low due to the hard life here,” Luos Oun, a 36-year-old HIV/AIDS patient, said. “It was more than 300, but now my CD4 is under 200, which is why I’ve felt exhausted.”
She also said that her family was having difficulties getting enough to eat. “Sometimes, we just eat to fill our empty stomachs, and we never think about whether the foods have enough nutrition.”
Another patient, 36-year-old Vinh Thy, said that her CD4 level has declined from 271 to 152 in two months. She added that the effectiveness of the community’s antiretroviral medications were declining in the heat of the metal sheds at Tuol Sambou. “It is difficult to eat and sleep, and the ARV quality is not so effective because of the hot climate,” she said.
Ms Thy added that residents had been supplementing their diets with fish and crabs caught at nearby rice fields, “But since early this month, the owners of the rice paddy told us to stop because it damages their fields.”
Chea Sarith, president of the Women’s Organization for Modern Economy and Nursing, said that his NGO is currently providing educational services to the community, and is slated to take over providing rice and transportation to hospitals in Phnom Penh for the community in September.
However, those programs are in jeopardy, as WOMEN’s current grant–provided by the Khmer HIV/AIDS NGO Alliance–ends at about the same time.
“KHANA has to continue the grant,” Mr Sarith said. “If KHANA doesn’t, we will try to contract with other organizations.”
He added that the visit of two high-ranking officials like Mr Lisle and Dr Kunthy–however long in the making it was–raised his hopes that more help would be forthcoming. “They have enough power to provide support.”
Mey Sovannara, communications coordinator for KHANA, said that he was hopeful that his organization’s funding would continue. “We don’t want to see it just ended here,” he said. “Right now, the people here are under consideration.”