More than 70 residents in Battambang’s Sangke district – including children as young as 3 – have tested positive for HIV after some of them received injections from an unlicensed doctor now on the run from authorities, villagers and officials said.
Following examinations by health officials starting on December 8, 72 out of 556 patients in the district tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS, National AIDS Authority (NAA) secretary-general Dr Teng Kunthy said yesterday.
Forty-four women, 14 men, seven girls and seven boys have been affected. Their ages range from 3 to 82 years old.
“This is a very unusual situation,” Kunthy said. “For now, this is the number that we have, but there might be more.”
During interviews with the NAA, at least 30 villagers reported receiving injections from an unlicensed private doctor in the area, he added.
The shots were administered for a variety of maladies, from typhoid to fevers, which may be why infections spanned such a wide age group.
Seoum Chhorn, deputy chief of Roka commune, where the outbreak was centred, tested positive, as did his wife, 13-year-old granddaughter and 9-year-old grandson.
“I suspect we got this from the injection that a doctor in this commune did to the villagers who often went to get services from him,” Chhorn said, adding that several other families in the area have more than one member affected.
“This doctor is very famous in the commune, and every villager got treatment service from him, but we do not know what kind of medicine he injected in us.”
Chhorn, however, said the doctor, whom he identified as Yem Chren, fled the commune and escaped to Takeo province a week ago with his wife.
Since Sunday, health officials have been unsuccessfully trying to reach out to Chren through his family, Kunthy said.
“We tried to invite him to talk, but unfortunately, he’s gone now,” he said. “We just want to know exactly what happened, and we’ve asked the family and the commune to report if they hear anything.”
For now, the infected villagers are being monitored and have received antiretroviral drug treatments from the NAA.
Their blood samples will be sent to Phnom Penh for further testing, said Battambang provincial health department director Veoung Bunreth.
Further blood tests will be conducted around the district to check for more HIV-positive residents.
“I really pity my grandson and granddaughter so much, because they’re very young but they have this disease,” Chhorn said. “I want to appeal to the Ministry of Health and the government to intervene and help us immediately and take action against the doctor who treated and cheated the villagers when he is unskilled.”
Major crime officers from Battambang provincial police are now in control of the investigation, which is being assisted by the Child Protection Unit (CPU).
“The Child Protection Unit is heading to Battambang early morning [today] with a group of experts to liaise with major crime officers in the investigation of this alleged perpetrator that might have spread HIV and affected children within a small amount of communes,” CPU director of operations James McCabe said.
UNAIDS country director Marie-Odile Emond called the situation “highly unusual”.
“It’s very rare indeed to have such a high number of people affected in the same place, that’s why it’s really worth investigating what happened,” Emond said.
From 1991 to 1993, HIV/AIDS cases reached almost epidemic proportions in Cambodia.
Through random blood testing, health officials recorded a 150 per cent surge in the rate of incidence among voluntary patients, a figure that did not include sex workers.
But since the early 1990s, Cambodia has made significant strides in improving its national HIV/AIDS response.
Programs, increased government funding and a focus on educating communities about preventative measures have resulted in steep declines in HIV rates, according to NAA figures, to as low as 0.7 per cent in 2013 and 0.6 per cent this year.
Of the estimated 75,000 people living with HIV, most receive appropriate treatments that allow them to live healthy lives.
“Cambodia is doing a lot of good in combating HIV, so it’s really important that we clarify what happened to stop its spread quickly,” Emond said.