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HIV treatment saves lives and dollars

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Heng Sambath (left), who is HIV-positive, speaks to reporters from the Post yesterday at a restaurant in Phnom Penh.

As moves to undermine the production of cheap generic HIV/AIDS drugs continue in Europe, a study released today by the National Aids Authority reveals the medicines have helped save thousands of Cambodian lives and prevented hundreds of millions of dollars in GDP losses.

The study examining the socio-economic impacts of HIV/AIDS was conducted for the NAA by the United Nations Development Programme. It estimates that 21,497 deaths in the labour force were averted through the government’s antiretroviral drug strategy between 2003 and 2009.

Antiretrovirals fight the progression of HIV/AIDS and have been provided free in Cambodia through government and civil society groups since 2001, after Indian companies began producing generic copies of the patented medicines. Heated protest have been launched in recent months by HIV/AIDS groups here and around the world to oppose the European Union’s attempt to prohibit production of the generic drugs through free trade agreements with India. The price of the life-saving medicines will surge if the EU succeeds in prohibiting the production of generic versions by Indian firms, the groups have warned.

But James Cercone, lead author of the NAA report, said that pressure from major international organisations, such as the Clinton Foundation, would likely ensure prices remain affordable for Cambodia’s “surprisingly” effective ARV programme to remain well supplied. “I never would have expected such a huge impact,” he said.

Cambodia’s ARV programme had saved the country more than US$600 million in the six-year period by reducing strains on GDP caused by decreased labour efficiency and lost taxes from death, the report said. Cercone said that though Cambodia surpassed some other countries in the region, such as China and Vietnam, in access to medical care for people with HIV/AIDS, significant problems remained. He pointed to the poverty that HIV/AIDS-affected families faced.

More than 30 percent of people who had contracted HIV subsequently lost their jobs and those who hadn’t saw their income drop by 50 percent, the report found.  Families with one member with HIV/Aids experienced discrimination within their communities and saw lower rates of school attendance among children because they had to work to contribute to household income. It also found that affected families had higher rates of asset sales to pay living expenses.

Heng Sambath, a former employee at the Cambodia People Living with HIV/AIDS Network, experienced discrimination firsthand. He recalls being so overwhelmed by despair after learning he had tested positive for HIV that he abandoned his fiancée and fled to a temple.

She tracked him down and convinced him to marry her, but Heng Sambath said this did not prevent the virus from tainting all of his personal relationships. He recalls arguing with neighbours on a daily basis “because of the way they treated me”.  “They belittled me, they looked down on my family,” he said. He was also forced to quit a high-paying job at a construction company and was ostracised in his community. Sambath eventually accepted his wife’s request for a divorce and left their village in 2003.

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