In Battambang's Sangke district, the outbreak that has seen more than 100 people test positive for HIV has devastated a community.
And for one family, the pain has been intensified by the sheer number of those infected – 15 out of a possible 16 have tested positive.
“It’s just unbelievable,” said Chhay Yav, 78, who herself has contracted HIV. “I am old, it is OK. But I pity my grandchildren; some of them are 6 months old, 2 years old, 18 years old.”
The only person in Yav’s family who has not tested positive for HIV since health authorities sensed something highly unusual in the village is her husband, 82-year-old Ta Em.
“The whole village, if they talk about our family now, they will know us as the AIDS family, because now everyone carries the virus, except for Ta Em – he is rarely sick.”
Like many others, the family believes they have been infected with HIV, the virus the causes AIDS, through treatment from the village doctor, the type a healthy Em has not needed.
“My family is often ill, so we call the doctor to give us intravenous injections. We prefer injections to [oral] medicine, which is less effective,” Yav said.
Police yesterday sent Yem Chroeum, an unlicensed village doctor, to court, after he was detained at the provincial police station on December 17, amid death threats.
“We have sent him to court for negligence and for working as a doctor without gaining permission from the Ministry of Health,” said provincial deputy police chief Chet Vanny.
“Any charges will be dependent on the prosecutor.”
Nuon Sang, provincial prosecutor, would not confirm the details last night, but suggested that Chroeum would be charged.
“The court is still questioning him. We will know tomorrow what the charges will be,” he said.
A 74-year-old man tested positive for HIV in Roka village, in Roka commune, in late November. A rash of testing and retesting followed as it became clear that scores of people, from babies to the elderly, had been infected.
The Pasteur Institute has said that it has confirmed at least 119 cases in a third round of testing, while one of its doctors, Didier Fontenille, has reportedly told local media outlet Voice of Democracy (VoD) that the figure has risen to 140. He was not available to confirm this yesterday.
Some experts have described the situation as highly unusual, casting doubt on whether a single doctor could infect so many people.
Authorities raided Chroeum’s house last week, seizing used and unused needles but have said a full investigation could take months.
But many villagers are certain that Chroeum’s needles have contaminated them. Their reactions range from violent anger to compassion for a practitioner who has answered many of them in their hour of need.
“I feel so much pity for my family,” Yav said. “But I am not angry with the doctor; he has not injected us to kill us, but to try to make us better.”
Yav’s family lives in three houses that border each other. Close to where the 78-year-old spoke, her granddaughter, San Sophy, 25, cried as she swung solemnly in a hammock.
“My daughter found it difficult to take medicine,” Sophy said. “We called the doctor to inject her when she had a temperature, but now she is infected with HIV.”
Sophy’s husband, unable to accept the news that he, too, has tested positive, has fled to a nearby banana plantation. He has spent days crying and refusing to eat, she said.
“My husband feels pity towards the children and shame that the whole family is infected,” Sophy said.
Villagers, she said, always called on Chroeum when they experienced high temperatures, dengue fever, typhoid or influenza. The doctor would see them immediately and sometimes hold off on billing them until they could afford to pay.
“We wanted to go the village health centre, but it’s too hard,” Sophy said. “We would get sick early in the morning and would have to wait until 9am to see them. We were in a hurry to get out to the fields, so we preferred the private doctor.”
Yav’s son, Em San, 48, said that he had stomach pain about five months ago, which led to the doctor injecting him with 20 needles.
“I just appeal to the government to provide us with medicine – or all of us in the village will die,” he said.
Like others, San has been replaying his appointments with Chroeum over and over in his mind.
From what he can remember, the practitioner always tore the packets containing new needles open in front of him.
“I am still wondering whether it is possible for the needles to have infected us,” he said.
Roeun Vun, 28, Yav’s grandson-in-law, was the first in his family to learn that he had HIV. In response, his family members turned on him. His wife even packed his bags for him and ordered him out.
Now they seek solace in each other.
“I wanted to commit suicide, because in my life, I have never gone anywhere but the rice fields,” he said. “My wife didn’t believe me . . . but now the whole village is infected.”
As sorrow continues to consume these households and the village as a whole, the authorities keep testing more potential victims.
“We can’t get people to come, it’s up to them,” said Dr Mean Chhivun, director of the National Centre for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STDs, who declined to give an official number of those infected.
James McCabe, director of operations at the Child Protection Unit, said a child as young as two months old had tested positive.
“It has yet to be determined whether or not it was passed from the mother.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SARAH TAGUIAM AND SHANE WORRELL