Moeun Chhean Nariddh explores some of the misconceptions surrounding the
disease as the latest figures are released.
One evening I overheard a
revealing chat between a young HIV positive man and his friend.
He told his
friend: "My Aids is gone and my swollen neck is also disappearing, there's no
such disease as Aids, it's just the worst state of syphilis."
He said he
had spent $1,500 on 30 sorts of drugs he had taken to cure the
Dr Richard Renas, WHO's Technical Officer for the Global Program
on Aids, said this is just one of the many myths about Aids in the country. "The
man's $1,500 expenditure was wasted, he was not cured from the
He spoke as new figures from the Pasteur Institute of Phnom
Penh showed nine of 102 people were tested HIV positive in January 1994, two of
55 in February and 12 of 92 people in March.
Kruy Sun Lay, the Acting
Director of the Institute said 73 percent of these HIV positive patients were
men between the ages of 20 and 40, half of whom are married, 7.3 percent were
women, mostly prostitutes.
Dr Tea Phala, head of the National Aids
Committee, said: "People feel terrible accepting the disease has come into their
community, so instead they try to adapt their beliefs to the situation -
deluding themselves it is just a kind of latent syphilis and not a new
"People believe syphilis can be cured and therefore that Aids
can be cured."
According to the WHO figures, as of March a total of 382
people in Cambodia have been reported as being HIV positive, the first were
found in 1991.
The National Aids Program estimates between 2,000-4,000
Cambodians may be HIV positive.
Pharmacist Tea Soky, Deputy Director of
National Blood Transfusion Center, said she expected the number of HIV patients
found among blood donors will double this year to about 4 percent.
1992, small scale surveys identified the rate of HIV in patients with STDs at
4.5 per cent, and the rate amongst commercial sex workers was 9.2 per cent.
Dr Phala says another misconception people have is they think the
information on the Aids problem is mainly just propaganda put out by condom
producers to socially market their products.
He added: "The other major
problem is that people do not like to give up behavior they enjoyed in the past
which included having many partners, or having sex with prostitutes without
Dr Renas says a further common myth is that HIV can be
transmitted by mosquitoes.
He explained Aids or Acquired Immune
Deficiency Syndrome is a condition where the immune system is so damaged it can
not protect the body from bacteria, germs, viruses and other threats.
Renas said other myths abound: healthy people do not have HIV; there is a cure
for Aids and that you can get the disease only from sex workers.
Phala said Cambodians still think Aids is not a problem here and only affects
"The epidemic has just came to Cambodia so it is
difficult to find the people with the symptoms to come and show they are
infected with HIV - unlike in other countries where people are willing to do so.
"Through health education we can make people aware and improve their
knowledge, but changing beliefs and practices is difficult. A person may know
and understand but still not believe."
Ung Kim Sour, Redd Barna's Aids
Program Officer, said such clinging to old beliefs is consistent with a Khmer
saying: "They will drop their tears just when they see the coffin."
Phala agrees that education is the key to beating the Aids threat. But he added:
"The job is hard because it needs a lot of money. To educate a person properly
requires a dollar per year in expenditure, so for a population of nine million
we need $9 million for the whole program, far more than we have."
education programs, the Ministry of Health in cooperation with the World Health
Organization and the British Volunteer Service Overseas has set up a clinic in
Phnom Penh's red light district of Toul Kok.
Set up in June 1993 the Toul
Kok Community Dike Clinic provides free medical services and is designed to
especially cater to the needs of commercial sex workers.
Vongvathiny, chief of the clinic, said on Tuesday evenings she briefs ten to 15
brothel owners and prostitutes on Aids.
According to her survey, she
estimates that only 40 percent of the customers use condoms, but the girls can
persuade up to 60 per cent to use them.
She says: "Condom usage has
increased from 20 to 30 percent figure when I arrived at Toul Kok in June
"However, some men, especially when they are drunk, never use
condoms and threaten not to pay the girl if she insists on them wearing a
"Many school boys come as a group to have sex with prostitutes.
According to many girls most young men do not use condoms."
Vongvathiny said the first big step was to educate the brothel owners because
they could then pass on the message to their girls. "If we talk to an owner it
is like talking to seven or eight girls."
But she said some brothel
owners are not very cooperative and try to force their girls to accept the
situation as they are prostitutes.
"Many brothel owners tell their girls
the old Khmer saying 'being a pig, you must not be afraid of hot water', meaning
they must not be afraid of Aids."