Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Clandestine sexual encounters drive up HIV infections: UN

Clandestine sexual encounters drive up HIV infections: UN

Clandestine sexual encounters drive up HIV infections: UN

Social stigma is keeping same-sex relations among men in the dark, discouraging STD testing and leading to their spiraling HIV rate

MSM AND HIV

An estimated 8.7 percent of MSM in Phnom Penh are infected with HIV, while 9.7 percent have some other sexually transmitted disease. Some 66 percent of MSM reported having had an average of three male partners each month.

NEW HIV infections among men having often secret sexual relations with other men is five times higher than the national prevalence rate, according to  United Nations figures.

The Country Progress Report by the United Nations' General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS), conducted from 2006 to the end of 2007, found 8.7 percent of Phnom Penh's MSM, or "men who have sex with men", are infected with HIV, compared with the national prevalence rate of 1.6 percent amongst adults age 15-49.

Denial and ignorance of same-gender sex have kept many MSM from seeking testing and treatment for sexually-transmitted diseases for fear that their friends and relatives would find out about their sexual activities.

The UN's report said that around 42 percent of MSM have not tested for HIV. 

MSM make up about four percent of Cambodian men, according to Tony Lisle, the country coordinator for the Joint United Nations Program in HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in Cambodia.

The problem is particularly strong amongst "short-haired" MSM - those who identify themselves as heterosexual and often have wives and families but secretly pursue sex with often multiple male partners each month.

Public health challenge

Cambodia has been able to tackle its HIV/Aids crisis through aggressive public service campaigns targeting mostly sex workers and their male customers.

But so far little has been done to address the risk of infection among MSM, and the UN report cites concerns that these men are spreading HIV to their spouses, threatening the Kingdom's otherwise downward trend in the rate of new infections.

Even MSM who are open about their sexual preferences face sharp discrimination that often discourages them from seeking proper healthcare. 

Pech Sokchea, 42, who has been in a relationship with his 25-year-old partner Nay Heng for four years, said that while he has learned to endure insults, the harsh words have taken a toll.

"I think I am just as much a member of society as other people are, and I have the right to love who I want, but I've come to hate myself sometimes," he said.

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