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Aids sufferers seek Buddhist comfort

Aids sufferers seek Buddhist comfort

THEY enter the pagoda discreetly, early in the morning or late in the afternoon when

the light is weak and people are scarce. They sit with the monk Pal Hon, seeking

his comfort and his believed cure: small plastic bags of bark and wood for tea and

two-liter soda bottles filled with a murky wine of botanicals.

In return, they present what has become the calling card of Wat Svay Dang Kum: a

thin white paper from Institut Pasteur du Cambodge - marked HIV-positive.

In the end, the people with HIV or AIDS receive a container of treatments and a heavy

dose of hope. Pal Hon receives less encouraging evidence of the HIV/AIDS crisis in

Cambodia: another document for his bulging pile of positive test results.

He is receiving up to roughly 170 people per month from throughout the country. On

a recent day, nearly 20 people from Kampot, Kompong Cham, Svay Rieng, Kompong Thom

and Phnom Penh visited him. Most who make the pilgrimage are young, some are foreign

and a few are already very sick - but they all have one thing in common: they are

desperate for care and desperate for a cure.

A 30-year-old woman seated on the floor of his receiving room recently made a second

trip all the way from Kampot for Pal Hon's medicine.

"I think he can make me better," she said, pulling at the skin of her arm.

"I've already gained weight from the tea." Pal Hon pulled his pipe from

his mouth to interject: "She is cured."

The woman's husband, a taxi driver, died three months ago of AIDS at age 33. He went

to the hospital with an unknown ailment, learned he had full-blown AIDS, and died

one week later, leaving his wife with four children faced with no income and a lot

of anxiety. When asked how her husband contracted the disease, she said it was "a


Her children have tested negative, but she was not so fortunate. The hospital gave

her the results, then recommended she visit Pal Hon. She scraped together $10 with

help from her mother's profits from selling rice and went to the pagoda, hiding her

condition from her community. Pal Hon gave her the medicine at this reduced rate.

Soth Sina, a researcher for the Cambodian AIDS Social Research Project, has interviewed

many of Pal Hon's visitors. She said many actually manage to afford the hefty $50

price of the wine treatment. Their payments help to offset the poorer people with

HIV and AIDS, who are charged less or nothing.

Wat Svay Dang Kum, with its many seekers of counsel and remedies, sits practically

in the backyard of the Ministry of Health, home to the National AIDS Program. The

symbolism of the location is apt. As the AIDS program struggles in vain to build

care facilities that will keep pace with the spread of the disease, people just outside

the halls of bureaucracy are seeking alternative solutions.

For those with HIV and AIDS, there is simply no time to wait for rhetoric to become


Dr. Hor Bunleng, program coordinator of the National AIDS Program, hopes that will

change in the coming months.

He said that the Ministry of Health would like to allocate money and equipment with

the help of local and international NGOs and the UN for a center for AIDS patients.

Sihanouk Hospital has been set aside as the site for this center, and in December,

Bunleng predicted it would be operational by March of this year.

But on a recent visit to the hospital, there were no signs of progress. The hospital,

once run by the Soviets, is suffering from a lack of resources, and the peeling walls,

cramped, dark rooms, antiquated equipment and dearth of medicines are barely adequate

for many routine treatments, much less a highly specialized AIDS center.

"The number one problem here is lack of funds," said Dr. Senya Chhin, chief

of the hospital's infectious service.

He has treated an average of seven HIV and AIDS cases per month and seen seven of

these patients succumb to AIDS. "I have been buying medicine with my own money

to help them," he said.

Dr. Chhin said he uses treatments that mix traditional and modern medicines.

However the success of these treatments is hard to measure because Cambodia has no

laboratory that can thoroughly test their effect on the immune system.

Chhin claimed that blood samples of treated patients that were sent to the United

States showed some improvement.

The hospital offers what medical attention it can for the physical toll of HIV and

AIDS, but counseling for the emotional toll faces even greater challenges.

Dr. Chhin said that patients who go to have their blood tested personally learn of

their condition; however, if he diagnoses a patient with HIV or AIDS, he informs

the family rather than the patient.

To avoid the increasing problem of families abandoning the patient out of fear -

without the patient ever knowing why - he said he instructs the family on how the

disease is contracted so they will not be afraid to care for the person with HIV

or AIDS.

Unfortunately, acceptance and understanding remains low.

This creates a troublesome catch. Those who don't know their condition may not receive

care from their families and those who do know of their condition may not receive

care for themselves. Either way, they are often frightened and confused.

Ol Ny, coordinator of the new AIDS counseling center, said: "The people who

come here are afraid and often in denial. They find it very difficult to talk about

HIV and AIDS."

Some of the 50 people who have visited the center since it started last June have

been suicidal. It's difficult work and "sometimes I cry with my clients,"

she admitted.

Last August, a 24-year-old university student from Battambang appeared on the doorstep

of the center.

Extremely ill and suffering from a severe skin condition, he said a hospital had

told him he was incurable.

Afraid to tell his family, he said he was alone with nowhere to go. Ol Ny helped

to find a place for him to be cared for - a group of nuns took him in.

In the end, it is the nuns and monks of Cambodia who are the last refuge for many

with AIDS.

The hospitals - and sometimes even the very families of those who are sick - may

turn them away, and so they go to the pagodas.

Pal Nol, at least, will receive them warmly and with comfort, if not a cure. The

woman from Kampot, sitting quietly in the corner of his receiving room, came for

that very reason.

"I am scared I will die and I am afraid for my children," she said, her

wide eyes worried. "But now I'm beginning to feel better."


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