An allegedly unlicensed doctor was taken into police custody yesterday as anger escalated in response to 106 people testing positive for HIV in Battambang’s Sangke district.
As the grim reality of the infections began sinking in, villagers made threats to kill a “famous” doctor they allege administered injections to at least 30 people in the area. Those who have tested positive for HIV are aged between 3 and 82 years old and include monks.
A source close to the case confirmed that a doctor had been detained by police in Battambang province.
“He is assisting with inquiries at this stage,” the source said.
The family of the man villagers accuse, Yem Chroeum, confirmed that he was “with police” but said it was for his own protection. They were adamant that he was not facing charges.
“He did not flee. He has been busy [elsewhere],” said son-in-law Chhem Choeun, 32. “When he knew there were problems, he wanted to return to face the villagers. But police told him to wait.… They needed him to appear in front of police if needed.”
Chet Vanny, Battambang provincial deputy police chief, denied that Chroeum was in custody.
“We have not arrested anyone or provided protection for a doctor at our station,” he said. “We are still investigating.”
Officials began health examinations in the district on December 8, and by Tuesday had discovered that at least 72 people had tested positive for HIV.
As health officials and NGOs rushed to the area yesterday, by 5:30pm further tests inflated that figure to 106 out of 895 people examined, according to National AIDS Authority (NAA) figures.
NAA Secretary-General Dr Teng Kunthy said the reason for the infections was not yet clear.
“The people who know clearly that they have not got this through sex may have got this through an injection from the village physician,” he said. “But we need more evidence, and we have to study and interview more people.”
Health officials, Kunthy added, wanted to speak with Chroeum to determine what kind of procedures he had been following.
But Roeun Butreth, Battambang director of the provincial health department, said a preliminary report had shown that the HIV infections were “not due to injections”.
“Authorities are investigating the cause of the infections,” he said.
However, as the number of positive tests grew yesterday, so did the attendant anger.
“If the other villagers and I see [Chroeum], then we will kill him,” said Seoum Chhorm, deputy chief of Roka commune.
A second blood test yesterday showed another positive HIV reading for Chhorm, 63, his wife and two grandchildren. “Police cannot stop us killing him.”
Chhorm said he has known Chroeum for more than 10 years, because Chroeum had married one of his relatives.
“I also knew that he himself has HIV, but I forgot; I did not think he would do that to us,” he said.
Choeun, Chroeum’s son-in-law, denied this, saying that “all of us, including my father-in-law, have been blood-tested. They have found nothing.”
Chroeum, he added, was a gentle man who treated people day and night when needed.
Sam Lorm, 80, told the Post outside the Roka commune health centre that he had tested positive to HIV.
“I always call this doctor to get intravenous injections whenever I have a cold or the flu. But if I had not had my blood tested, I would not have believed this. I am still strong,” he said.
“I am not afraid, because I am old now. But I am sorry for my 16-year-old [relative] who is studying. He just got injected three months ago.”
Other villagers stood crying outside the health centre. Among them, a devastated Leap Loeut, 55, said she was still coming to terms with the fact that she had tested positive.
She had never had sex with anyone but her husband and regularly warned her children about health risks.
“I tell them to be careful of HIV, but now I have had it without knowing,” she said.
Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An urged police to arrest any unlicensed doctors responsible for spreading HIV among the population.
“We have to find the reason why it has spread like this,” Sam An said. “We have to take strong action against perpetrators. We cannot allow unlicensed doctors to open clinics that make villagers suffer.”
But James McCabe, director of operations at the Child Protection Unit, said a thorough investigation was needed before the cause of the infections in Sangke district could be established.
“We’re still in the very early stages of investigating,” he said. “This will not happen overnight. We need to find out what actually happened and make sure it cannot happen again.”
Buth Bunthoeun, Sangke district police chief, said police had yet to determine a cause.
Despite rumours Chroeum had fled the province, he had actually gone to Takeo province on December 8 for his mother’s funeral, Bunthoeun said.
“How can we arrest him without evidence?”
Kunthy, from the NAA, said a team had visited the area to provide support to the victims.
“It’s not a problem, we have provided them care packages,” he said. Kunthy clarified this comment by saying that those who had tested positive were being offered adequate support and that the NAA was “very sorry” about what had happened.
UNAIDS country director Marie-Odile Emond declined to comment yesterday.
Blame was also being directed towards a system that enabled people to get away with working as unlicensed as doctors.
“From now on, I will stop believing in all doctors. They do not pay attention to the patients; they think about only themselves,” said Chhorm, the deputy commune chief.
“The state hospitals never care about the health of their own people – that’s why they allow the private clinics and private doctors to spread their services everywhere and end up with a situation like this.”
MOM KUNTHEAR AND SHANE WORRELL REPORTED FROM PHNOM PENH