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NGO warns HIV infection rate in some groups rising

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Volunteers distribute leaflets about HIV/AIDS and condoms along the riverside in the capital’s Daun Penh district in 2021. Hong Menea

NGO warns HIV infection rate in some groups rising

Local NGO White Lotus Flower Association, which was established in 2003 and registered officially in 2006, provides healthcare and treatment to nearly 3,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in the Kingdom.

During its 20 years of operation, the association has treated over 17,000 patients at its clinic, including people living with HIV/AIDS and STDs as well as people seeking birth control and contraception services, blood tests, condoms and other items related to mitigating risks associated with sexual activity.

The clinic provides treatment to 2,787 people living with HIV/AIDS who are taking antiretroviral drugs every day, which is a high-risk or vulnerable population, but 93 per cent of them come in for regular care and treatment.

“Our mission is to focus on HIV/AIDS care and treatment projects among high-risk groups such as sex workers, men who have sex with men, transgender people, drug users including intravenous drug users, all without service charges,” said Yun Phearun, executive director of the association.

Phearun said that for 2021, the figures for known HIV infections among sex workers showed that there were 1,100 new HIV-positive cases within that population that year, though there were undoubtedly additional unknown or unreported cases occurring.

He explained that the general population who do not work in public health and do not come into contact with these marginalized groups are unaware of the growing number of communicable diseases among these groups and that many people seem to think that there is no longer any risk of contracting HIV anymore, when in fact HIV is on the rise within certain population groups in the Kingdom, though not in the general population.

“The rate of HIV infections has not decreased, it has only increased. However, this increase is only among high-risk groups. We find an average of 150 to 180 new HIV cases per quarter,” Phearun told The Post.

HIV first became a concern among the general population 20 years ago, but now the numbers are on the rise particularly among gay men, and drug users.

Men who have sex with men (MSM) is a term that has been adopted because it accurately describes the actions of some men without attempting to determine whether they are doing it because of their orientation or for other purposes such as money. That group represents 20 per cent of new cases, with infections occurring due to activities engaged in at massage parlours, steam rooms, saunas and certain beer gardens, according to Phearun.

“Remarkably, if we look at women sex workers, the transmission rate is lower. Sex workers are only 3.2 per cent of new infections, while the MSM group is 4.9 per cent and the transgender group is large, but the drug user group is now up to 17 per cent,” he said.

The drug user category includes those who use drugs intravenously and may be sharing needles, but it also encompasses those who have group sex while using an aphrodisiac called poppers and then engage in unprotected sex with multiple partners, an activity that used to be associated with MSM chiefly but now also includes groups with both men and women together.

Phearun said that his association has a mobile testing van that goes to areas where individuals from high risk groups congregate and offers on the spot blood testing services. If anyone tests positive they are taken to the clinic for more accurate testing. If that testing confirms their HIV-positive status then they are given counselling and prescribed antiretroviral drugs that are effective at suppressing HIV, thereby reducing its impact on their health and making it less likely that they will go on to infect anyone else.

White Lotus Flower Association provides HIV and syphilis testing along with the diagnosis and treatment of all STIs in both men and women and contraceptive services with all types of contraceptives methods, whether it’s oral contraceptives, intrauterine devices or condoms.

Phearun also answered some public questions that claim that taking antiretroviral drugs for a long time will no longer come with HIV/AIDS so that they can get married and have more children.

Phearun wanted to dispel the myth that there’s a cure for HIV available.

“When they take antiretroviral medicines, it improves their health and extends their life, perhaps even to a regular full lifespan. But for more than 40 years now there has been no cure for HIV. The best available drugs just prolong life and allow people to be as healthy – in terms of how they feel – as a non-infected person, but it does not completely cure the virus,” he said.

He said that the virus is still present in the body, but when the patient takes the drugs regularly for six months to one year the virus concentration tests cannot detect any HIV via the most accurate machine testing. When the results are undetectable, that means that the patient can no longer transmit the virus to others.

He said that according to an earlier study with a group of volunteers consisting of 1,600 heterosexual couples with one partner infected with the virus but taking the drugs, and one uninfected, showed the efficacy of the drugs in suppressing transmission. When the study wrapped-up it was determined that none of the uninfected partners had become infected.

The complete suppression of the virus via antiretroviral drugs also makes it possible for HIV-infected person to have children without risk of transmitting the virus to the child provided they are at the undetectable stage when they become pregnant.

The main drawback is that the patients must continue to take these drugs for the rest of their lives, without fail, or they can expect that the virus will come back again.

Given White Lotus Flower Association’s primary mission, World AIDS Day – which this year fell on December 1 – is always an important event for their organisation that they are active participants in.

“We wanted to raise more public awareness about the other White Lotus services, which are available in addition to testing. We have added new services that are reasonably priced, such as treatment for STI symptoms, vaccinations and hormone services for transgender people,” he said.

“Our long term plans are that we aim to evolve from a non-profit NGO that relies on grant funding to a self-sustaining entity in the future,” Phearun said.

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