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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Fears abound in HIV village

A senior citizen sits on a day bed at her residence in Roka commune
A senior citizen sits on a day bed at her residence in Roka commune. The community has been troubled by the recent deaths of five elderly villagers, which have sparked concerns that soon the elderly would be gone. Heng Chivoan

Fears abound in HIV village

Three months after their community was shaken by a mass outbreak of HIV, support continues to pour in for residents of Battambang province’s Roka commune.

But amid fears generated by the death of several elderly residents and the belief the funding could soon dry up, they say their future remains in limbo.

In the quiet township earlier this month, piles of food were carefully laid out and counted for some of the more than 200 HIV-positive villagers.

As they showed off bags of donated rice, residents told the Post that the incurable infection had brought some unexpected benefits.

Prior to the outbreak, San Sophy said she struggled to feed herself and her 2-year-old daughter, but now daily meals are no longer an issue.

“Before I was so skinny, but since I got HIV, now I’m getting fat,” said Sophy, whose family was devastated by the outbreak, with 15 of 16 members HIV-positive.

Since reports broke of the outbreak – which has been attributed to tainted injections from an unlicensed doctor – in December, Roka commune has been at the forefront of government speeches, with promises made to support the community and to ensure that the tragedy is not repeated elsewhere.

Affected families say the support they have received from the government and NGOs has helped to ease their daily suffering. But they are not confident it will last

“I am worried about the future, when we’re ill and no one helps,” said 27-year-old Phal Sok Heap, who is eight months pregnant.

Sok Heap, who was diagnosed months before the outbreak was first detected and has been taking antiretroviral drugs throughout her pregnancy, has been assured by doctors that her child will not be born HIV-positive.

But she remains concerned that if support is cut, her baby will suffer.

“I don’t know about the future of my baby, because I don’t know what will happen to me,” she said. “I don’t know if I will have enough formula milk and food for the baby if I stop getting help from the government and charities.”

Phal Sok Heap stands in the shade of her house in Battambang province’s Roka commune
Phal Sok Heap stands in the shade of her house in Battambang province’s Roka commune. Heng Chivoan

And concerns for the future are not unfounded.

Almost six years ago, dozens of HIV/AIDS-affected families from Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila community were moved 22 kilometres away to form a so-called “AIDS colony”.

Garnering international attention, the families received support from at least 11 different NGOs. But as the spotlight has shifted, support from the government and NGOs has dwindled.

Dr Ly Penh Sun, director of the National Centre for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD Control (NCHADS), said yesterday that support for Roka was a “long-term” commitment.

Penh Sun explained that a number of ministries were involved in establishing a wide-ranging action plan for the area, which would last for “at least five years”.

And he said even when the plan had ended, the government hoped to leave behind an apparatus of support, such as medical units, to continue helping the community.

Outside of material and medical support, residents told the Post they were concerned that the very make-up of the community was changing, with fears that the elderly would soon be gone, while the youth would be left looking towards a hopeless future.

Since the outbreak was detected, six HIV-positive patients – five elderly and one infant – have passed away.

Multiple villagers told reporters of a rumour circulating Roka that all of the community’s elderly will die within the month.

While the rumours are unfounded, and experts say it is hard to determine definitively that the deaths were related to their HIV-positive status, they acknowledge that the elderly are at greater risk.

Penh Sun said that elderly patients may already have weaker health, “and once they get HIV, infected it further damages their health”.

Seventy-year-old Kim Lay, whose husband was the most recent fatality, said her own future looked bleak.

“I am very worried today, because the elderly are falling sick and leaving the world. I am so shocked, because I am one of them,” she said, as she rested on a mat in the shade of her wooden home.

“What I have done now is decided to try to eat as much as I can; otherwise, one day when I fall sick and I cannot eat, I’ll pass away.”

Chay Yav, the grandmother in the 16-member family, said she had considered taking her own life.

“On the day I was having the first two tablets, I wanted to take more and more and let myself die … but because my children encouraged me to struggle on, I can live till today, owing to having regular medicine,” she said.

Seventy-eight-year-old Yav, whose 7-month-old grandchild died earlier this year after being diagnosed with a severe respiratory infection, said she was angry at herself for having survived.

“I pity my little grandchildren; I don’t know what their future will be. They are innocent, but they have HIV,” she said.

Her husband, 82-year-old Ta Em, the only HIV-negative member of the family, said he feared Roka will become a “ghost village”.

“If people keep dying like this, how can the village have a future?” he asked.

While making preparations for the birth of her child, Sok Heap echoed concerns that no one will survive.

“This is the old people’s turn; next it’s our turn.”

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