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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Alarm over new AIDS figures

Alarm over new AIDS figures

The number of HIV positive cases diagnosed in Cambodia last month show a three-fold

increase over the previous month with most victims males in their mid-20s.

The Pasteur Institute found nearly eight percent of patients seeking treatment for

sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in September tested positive for HIV.

About two percent of blood donors at the National Blood Transfusion Centre have been

testing positive every month since January. Some 85 percent of blood donors are males

aged 18 to 40.

In total, 32 Cambodians tested positive for HIV in September - more than one a day.

And in the eight months from January this year until the end of August, a total of

82 people were found to be HIV positive.

To date more than 200 people have tested HIV positive in Cambodia, but Health Ministry

officials say World Health Organization (WHO) estimates put the real figure at between

1,000 and 2,000.

"This is the second killing fields," claims Dr Kruy Sunlay, who says it

will be another ten years before the full impact is felt.

"The problem now is we have no funds for HIV testing," she says.

Last month's victims ranged in age from 18 to 32. The 20 STD patients included two

women - 18 and 20 years old.

"The important problem is not only [to tackle] diagnosis in the laboratory but

health education on the TV, radio and in newspapers," insists the doctor who

has called for a nation-wide education campaign.

Lars Meyner, head of the national blood transfusion program of the International

Committee of the Red Cross, echoed Dr Kruy's call for more education and claimed

popular ignorance could see AIDS reaching epidemic proportions in Cambodia.

"Many young men here have their first sexual experience with a commercial sex

worker," says Meyner who adds that the majority never use condoms.

With HIV on the increase Mr Meyner is concerned about the possibility of infected

blood being used in transfusions.

He also sees dangers through needle sharing, a practice of many small provincial

hosptials and pharmacies.

"There is no real understanding among the population of what AIDS is or what

are the consequences," maintains Meyner.

Dr Kruy is not alone in her fear of an AIDS epidemic. The World Health Organisation

and several NGO's have recognised the problem and have begun to take steps to combat

it.

Although more than 100 Cambodian HIV victims had been identified in 1991 and 1992,

none were informed as no counselling was available at the time.

Dr Mam Bun Heng, chairman of the National AIDS Committee, says the provisional government

had put AIDS control on the high priority list, but funds and real commitment from

the commuity were lacking.

"We are trying now to get more money. We've produced a five year comprehensive

plan, but we need money - $7.5m," he said.

"And we need a committment from all sectors: education, administration, the

religious (sector), and the economic sector..not only to talk but to develop the

program."

The first stage, he says, should be to educate high risk groups like prostitutes

and STD victims.

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