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Virologist pushes AIDS treatment

Says govt should make third-line treatment available, even though few require it at present.

THE government must do more to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV and to provide access to treatment for patients who have become resistant to medicine available in Cambodia, an internationally renowned virologist told the Post Wednesday.

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, who won the Nobel prize in medicine in 2008 for her role on the team that identified the HIV/AIDS virus in 1983, has worked on HIV/AIDS projects in Cambodia since 1995, and said she will meet with Health Ministry officials today to discuss the most pressing issues concerning the treatment of the virus.

She also said that although HIV/AIDS patients in Cambodia have access to first- and second-line treatments, third-line treatments are not available for patients who develop resistance. She said this would currently only affect a minority of patients, but that it was something that needs to be addressed, especially as it is possible that the number of patients developing resistance to initial treatment will grow.

She expressed optimism that these issues will be addressed, saying that health officials have been successful in managing the virus over the past 15 years.

“Cambodia has been very active in terms of [facilitating] access to antiretroviral treatment – I think now there are more than 37,000 patients on treatment here in Cambodia, and that’s been [the result of] a really wonderful reactivity from authorities here,” she said.

Dr Mean Chhi Vun, director of the Health Ministry’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD (NCHADS), said the government has already implemented a new model to reduce mother-to-child transmission, which he said has been successful.

“It was introduced in two provinces – Takeo and Prey Veng – in 2008, and only two babies of the 80 mothers on the programme were born with HIV,” he said, adding that the model was expanded to 11 other provinces in 2009.

“We plan to reduce the transmission of HIV from mother to child to less than 1 percent by 2020,” he added.

However, Mean Chhi Vun said that the government had no immediate plans to make third-line treatment available in the country, arguing that this would deplete resources that would be better used for maintaining a high level of first-line treatment.

“Only 3 percent of patients need second-line treatment, and even fewer need third-line treatment,” he said. “Third-line treatment is a very expensive drug.”

He added that Health Ministry officials had worked successfully with local and international partners to manage the virus, and would continue to do so.

Barré-Sinoussi arrived in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, as part of Vienna-based International Peace Foundation’s programme Bridges: Dialogues Toward a Culture of Peace.

She is scheduled to meet with health officials in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap over the next week, in addition to making public appearances.

She delivered a keynote speech at the University of Cambodia on Wednesday, where she was awarded an honorary doctorate in recognition of her Nobel prize and of her work in Cambodia and elsewhere.

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