CHAN Sophy's picture and biography were handed out to
30,000 people at last week's Water Festival. Sophy,
however, is not a famous movie actress or karaoke star.
She is an HIV-positive woman who has decided to go public
about her condition.
"I became brave, to have my photo taken, to tell my
whole story to let other people know, so that everyone
will protect themselves," said Sophy, 31. "Even
though I think I will not live much longer, while I am
alive I want everyone to know my story."
She was diagnosed with HIV early this year one of an
estimated 140,000 Cambodians carrying the virus.
"It's really frightening," said Dr. Tia Phalla,
Deputy Director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS.
"If one train accident caused 50 dead, people would
say `Oh, very shocking', but every day, 50 to 70 people
And a recent national survey showed that only one-tenth
of those who tested positive knew their HIV status.
Sophy said people often don't believe she is infected
because she looks so healthy. "But I tell them, `how
can you know what's inside?' I want everybody to really
believe that AIDS exists in Cambodia."
Cambodia holds the dubious distinction of the highest HIV
infection rate in Asia.
Since the first case was diagnosed in 1991, the virus has
spread to about 2.5% of the population. By comparison, it
took 10 years for Thailand to hit the 2% mark.
AIDS educators say that real people coming forward to
tell their stories of HIV infection and encourage condom
use are crucial to the fight against the
rapidly-spreading disease. Sophy's agreement to be
included in a UNICEF AIDS brochure handed out at the
Water Festival was one such step.
"If we can find people like this, it's very
helpful," said Dr. Oum Sopheap, head of the HIV/AIDS
Coordinating Committee, an NGO consortium. "We're
trying to find these people, with a strong commitment to
speak [out]; we need these people."
Tia Phalla agreed: "People living with AIDS can
speak about the disease, they have the emotion... and
then people will take it personally."
Phalla illustrated his point with a video of one
HIV-positive woman telling her story to a tough-looking
group of military and police. By the time she finished,
many of the men in the audience were in tears along with
But in a country where being HIV-positive carries an
enormous social stigma, finding people willing to discuss
their stories is not easy.
Sophy's husband, who died earlier this year, lost his job
after publicly declaring his status during last year's
World AIDS Day. Sophy lost her job also and was shunned
by her neighbors after her condition became known.
"It's very embarrassing to talk about this
status," said Tia Phalla.
It is not uncommon for an HIV-positive husband to keep
his status secret while continuing to have unprotected
sex with his wife.
"Discrimination and stigma make prevention very
difficult," said Oum Sopheap, noting that outreach
workers are sometimes placed in moral dilemmas when
HIV-positive people beg them not to reveal their status
to their spouses. "It's hard, it's really hard... if
you cannot talk to the wife, they are prey to their
husband," he said.
Such attitudes help explain why the HIV infection rate is
spreading rapidly among married women 2.4% is the current
Thea, 28, and Maly, 29, said they believed they had
contracted the virus from their soldier husbands. The
women met through a support group set up by World Vision.
"One day I went to the hospital for another
problem," recalled Maly. "The doctor tested me
and told me [I had HIV]." Her husband has not had a
test. "Since he learned I am infected, he has not
Thea said her husband was "in the jungle" and
had not been home since she was tested in May.
Their stories indicate the spread of the virus beyond
traditionally high-risk groups.
"People think, `If I don't go to a sex worker I'm
not going to get it', but it's moving into the general
population and people have to realize it is something
that's going to affect them," said Caroline Francis,
Project Manager of CARE's Border Areas HIV/AIDS Project.
Cambodia's about 10,000 commercial sex workers have a 42%
infection rate. With sex workers averaging three clients
per day and only about half the clients using condoms,
and then often going home and having unprotected sex with
their wives the infection rate is soaring, experts say.
By the year 2000, Cambodia may have 25,000 AIDS cases. By
2006, there may be 40,000 AIDS orphans. "We're just
at one stage of the epidemic we're not in the part where
we're actually seeing the face of AIDS yet," Francis
Yet some 11% of hospital beds in Phnom Penh already hold
One group, Hope Cambodia Volunteers, was formed last year
to take care of needy AIDS patients.
Chea Sophy, assistant coordinator of the 52-member group,
is himself HIV positive. "After I knew I was an AIDS
victim I was hopeless, but my doctors encouraged me to be
hopeful and helped me to join this group," he said.
"I went to the [hospital] and met some other victims
and want-ed to help them."
Group coordinator Vathdana Chhavelith said they
concentrate on those patients who have been abandoned by
He added that sometimes even nurses will neglect AIDS
patients, so great is the stigma.
Sopheap told of a 29-year-old man who was diagnosed with
AIDS and virtually disowned by his family. Neighborhood
children taunted him, calling him "a-AIDS" [the
despicable one with AIDS].
"It's not the disease that hurt me, but the people
around me hurt me very much," Sopheap quoted the man
Phalla said he would like to arrange a meeting of
activist AIDS victims with King Norodom Sihanouk, both to
destigmatize those stricken with the disease and to
recognize their unselfish work.
"These people who devote their remaining lives to
saving lives of others, it makes them heroes," he
said. "They become the solution."