As nations around the globe mark World AIDS Day, the Kingdom’s first lady, Bun Rany, has appealed to Cambodians to do their part in helping the UN reach its goal of eradicating HIV entirely within 15 years. Local experts, however, say progress in some high-risk communities has stalled.
“All Cambodians and authorities should join together as part of the worldwide effort to get rid of HIV by 2030, through prevention work, protecting yourself, hurrying to hospital for treatment and not discriminating against people affected by the disease,” she said in a statement.
Rany, who also serves as president of the Cambodian Red Cross, added that Cambodia had made great strides in the fight against HIV, reducing the infection rate amongst people aged 15 to 49 from 1.6 per cent in 1998, to just 0.6 per cent this year.
She also said HIV rates amongst high risk groups had fallen dramatically in the past 20 years.
However, according to Marie-Odile Emond, Cambodia country director for UNAIDS, although infection rates had indeed come down amongst those most at risk, progress has now stalled.
“We seem to have reached a limit among key population groups such as sex workers, men who have sex with men, transgender people and intravenous drug users,” she said. “We have got to a lot of people, but those that remain are proving hard to reach because they are among the most marginalised, poor and fearful groups in society.”
Social media and dating apps were a problem, she added, because they allowed at-risk groups to meet up for sex without congregating in bars or nightclubs where they can be reached by intervention programs.
Amongst the general population, HIV infections had fallen to just 0.6 per cent in 2014, according to Kolab Chhim, a manager at HIV NGO Khana, but the latest available figures for sex workers estimate the infection rate at just below 14 per cent.
Among men who had sex with men, the HIV infection rate for 2014 was almost four times that of the general population.
“We don’t know the extent of the problem in these groups, because only 50 per cent of those we reach agree to be tested,” she said.
UNAIDS’ Emond was especially concerned about young people.
“The latest survey shows that knowledge of HIV is going down among young people,” she said.
“There is a perception that HIV is not a big issue, because of the availability of treatment, plus the decline of infections in the general population creates the impression it’s someone else’s problem.”