TAKING the opportunity to reach the millions of Cambodians visiting Phnom Penh for the Water Festival, the Aids Healthcare Foundation (AHF) launched the first phase of a global effort to test one million people for HIV/Aids this week.
The testing push, which started in Phnom Penh, will last until December 1, World Aids Day, according to Mam Sophal, the president of the HIV Program at the Phnom Penh Municipal Health Department, which has been working closely with AHF Cambodia.
AHF, the largest Aids group in the United States, currently provides Aids medical care and services to more than 83,000 individuals in 22 countries.
Dr Chhim Sarath, the country program manager for AHF Cambodia, said the group, which operates 11 free Aids clinics around the country, has donated 20,000 testing kits to the government.
AHF plans to test 10,000 Cambodians this month. According to Mam Sophal, they have already tested 579 individuals, with four positive results.
"The people who found out they had HIV have not been afraid. They've been given hope by the program," Mam Sophal said, "I tell the people with HIV/Aids, ‘Don't worry, because the program can help you live a long time. We have the medical care to support you'."
Chhim Sarath said, "This testing is very important. If a person tests positive, we give them proper counseling and introduce them to care services. They also learn how to prevent spreading the disease."
Initially, Mam Sophal thought this new campaign to encourage HIV tests might not be successful, thinking people would be too afraid to get tested, but he has been pleasantly surprised by the results.
"I thought people would be afraid of the results and would not join the program, but when it started, people came to the test with smiles on their faces," he said.
The goal, however, is not just to test people, but also to raise awareness and teach people about the virus. The Water Festival, organisers say, is an ideal place given the number of attendees.
"Many people from different provinces are in Phnom Penh. It is an opportunity to reach people and teach them about HIV/Aids," Chhim Sarath said, estimating that they reached 1,000 people a day during the festival, which ended Thursday.
In about a week, the testing push will expand into eight provinces. According to government statistics, Cambodia's HIV rate for people aged 15 to 49 fell from 1.9 percent in 2003 to 0.9 percent in 2007.
But AHF officials says HIV has spread beyond high-risk groups like injection drug users and sex workers to the general population, making a general HIV/Aids campaign even more important.