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Cambodian staff members of an NGO explain to villagers how to prevent HIV and other diseases on World AIDS Day 2013.
Cambodian staff members of an NGO explain to villagers how to prevent HIV and other diseases on World AIDS Day 2013. AFP

HIV in Cambodia

Next year, Cambodia will mark 25 years since its first HIV case was reported and its national AIDS response sprung into action, becoming one of the most successful in the region.

This movement, which united the royal government and civil society in a common goal, saved tens of thousands of lives and transformed the face of AIDS from one of fear, suffering and isolation to one of positive living, community leadership and engagement.

On World AIDS Day 2015, we can celebrate another year of progress: strategic planning, prioritising services focusing on key populations at higher risk, encouraging HIV testing and enrolment for HIV treatment, promoting knowledge and demand for services among and with communities, piloting innovations for prevention as well as for more integrated and cost efficient approaches for care and support, mobilising resources, improving strategic information and advancing human rights and gender equality.

Almost one year after a high number of HIV infections were suddenly reported in Roka commune, Battambang, 90 per cent of identified people living with HIV (PLHIV) in the community are on treatment and learning progressively to live positively with HIV.

This was possible thanks to tremendous and rapid mobilisation from the government at the national, provincial and local levels in partnership with civil society, including community organisations that provided the necessary services and support to the Roka community members impacted by HIV.

It is a long-term investment to accompany people living with HIV in Roka to remain on treatment every single day, protect their loved ones and ensure HIV does not impede on other aspects of their lives. Unfortunately, stigma and discrimination still make life challenging for people living with HIV.

No matter where in the country, people living with HIV and people at higher risk of HIV deserve a full life of dignity and inclusion with access to long term quality health services, adequate social safety nets, equal livelihoods and employment opportunities in an environment where human rights are fully respected.

Some Cambodians are now living with HIV for 20 years and while HIV changed their lives, through resilience and courage challenges were turned into opportunities.

Their experience in building a positive present and future, informing and contributing to the national response through community-led services, peer support and reducing stigma and discrimination for people more recently affected remains an inspiration and an asset to appreciate on this World AIDS Day.

Progress was also made in identifying necessary building blocks for the sustainability of the national AIDS response: increased national funding, adequate health human resources, affordable drugs and commodities, cost efficiencies, integration and strengthening the Win-Win-Win partnership between the government, civil society and communities impacted by HIV.

At a recent dialogue on the sustainability of the national AIDS response, the senior minister in charge of special mission and chair of the National AIDS Authority, Ieng Mouly, called for “a compelling march into the future against time, in order to mobilise all our resources [material, intellectual, cultural, emotional, strategic and even resources of faith] and to deploy them towards turning this crisis of the HIV/AIDS pandemic into an opportunity . . . We must see it as our problem and we must own our future in the same way we own our home, our land, our heritage and our culture.”

Unfortunately, this promising march into a future where the AIDS epidemic is no longer a public-health threat remains marked by steps backwards.

The arbitrary arrests and detention of some among the most vulnerable populations – including entertainment workers, transgender people, men who have sex with men, people who use drugs, PLHIV and other marginalised groups – not only affects their rights but also their health and public health, as some are deprived of life-saving HIV treatment while increasing the risk that others shun prevention programs out of fear of being targeted in the street sweeps.

This is a loss for everyone and undermines the investment and hard-won gains made in the HIV response and in lifting people out of poverty. We can and should all do better, offering key populations other options for a life in dignity, hope and empowerment to realise their full potential as human beings.

In September, Cambodia was one of 193 United Nations member states to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and commit to ending the AIDS epidemic as a public-health threat by 2030.

While this goal is ambitious it is achievable through a fast-track approach with accelerated action and investments over the next five years. Cambodia’s commitment is stronger than ever aiming to achieve this well before the global target.

For many years, Cambodia is on the right side of AIDS history, leading by example, becoming a model for the region and the world. However, until everyone is safe, the story of AIDS and our responsibilities are not over.

This is what the UN system commits to. World AIDS Day is the opportunity to thank everyone who contributes to Fast Tracking progress. Join us in this compelling march and every step of the way, choose a life of dignity for everyone. In the new SDG era, the most vulnerable come first, not last. This is the only way for all of us, and especially the young generation, to finally end the AIDS epidemic as public health threat by 2030.

Marie-Odile Emond is the chair of the UN Joint Team on HIV/AIDS and the UNAIDS country director.

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