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AIDS czar steps down

Mean Chhivun talks to the media in Battambang's Sangke district
Mean Chhivun talks to the media in Battambang's Sangke district about the HIV outbreak there in December. Heng Chivoan

AIDS czar steps down

Amid the biggest HIV outbreak in recent memory and following a career of broad success tinged with scandal, Dr Mean Chhivun has retired from his position as the head of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD (NCHADS).

Dr Ly Penh Sun, previously deputy director of NCHADS, took control of the organisation on Monday after Chhivun’s retirement. Penh Sun denied that the succession had any connection to the outbreak in Battambang province’s Roka commune, where 234 people had tested HIV-positive as of Friday.

“This is nothing new and we have all known about this plan for a while,” said Penh Sun, who has worked in NCHADS since 1995. “The Ministry of Health has picked a successor for a long time, and we just waited until [Chhivun] retired.”

Cambodia made significant strides in improving its HIV/AIDS response during the 60-year-old Chhivun’s two-decade term as director.

The much-lauded HIV prevention program resulted in steep declines in infection rates, from 2.1 per cent of the population in 1999 to 0.4 per cent in 2014, according to National AIDS Authority figures.

But Chhivun’s achievements have been marred by controversies. In 2013, NCHADS, along with other institutions within the Ministry of Health, was implicated in a damning corruption probe that found $473,300 in misused funds granted by international donor body Global Fund.

Penh Sun said that the contractor responsible for the financial fraud in NCHADS paid back the amount owed by the organisation in full, as the Global Fund itself has corroborated.

During a press conference following questioning by the National Assembly last January 27, Health Minister Mam Bunheng said that the Anti-Corruption Unit is continuing to investigate the case.

The ongoing HIV outbreak, which preliminary enquiries attributed to tainted injections administered by an unlicensed doctor, also revealed the organisation’s and the ministry’s possible lack of proper regulation of illegal medical practices.

“The HIV case is unique in nature . . . but since it was detected, Dr Chhivun took very prompt actions to ensure HIV prevention was increased in the affected communities,” said joint UNAIDS strategic information adviser Dr Mohammed Saleem.

Chhivun, who could not be reached for comment, will continue to work as a special adviser to NCHADS and will assume a teaching and research role at the University of Health Sciences.

Multiple calls to the Ministry of Health were not returned yesterday.

“NCHADS’ leadership is very important, but Dr Chhivun was a mentor and coach to Dr Penh Sun, so I think he will have no problem taking over responsibilities,” said Dr Oum Sopheap, executive director of HIV prevention NGO KHANA.

Considering the massive HIV infection, however, Sopheap noted that NCHADS has to strengthen its approach to reach its “Three Zeros” goal – that is, to eliminate new HIV infections, AIDS-related deaths and discrimination against HIV-positive persons by 2020.

Penh Sun said that he plans to do just that.

“There will be no big changes,” he said. “I’ve just gotten the position, but I’m going to follow and implement the strategies that NCHADS has been working towards in the past years so we can achieve our goals.”

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