Cradling her young daughter in her arms, Khat Tha confessed she was terrified to fall pregnant with HIV. Tha, now 50, has lived with the virus for 15 years. Her husband, who frequented sex workers, became infected, and in turn infected her. When he passed away from AIDS in 2014 and Tha remarried, her new husband wanted a child.
“I was very scared. I did not want to get pregnant because I knew I had HIV,” she said. But she consulted with her doctor, who gave her medicine to prevent HIV transmission to the foetus, and despite the financial difficulty, she purchased formula for her baby, Srey Mom, to drink.
Srey Mom, now a cheeky 2-year-old playing with a balloon affixed to her wrist, is HIV-free. The spread of HIV from mother to unborn child is something the government aims to eliminate by 2020, the chair of the National AIDS Authority, Ieng Mouly, said yesterday at a World AIDS Day march on Koh Pich.
He said this year, some 80 percent of pregnant women were given medicine to prevent infections in the womb, though 6 percent of new mothers with HIV passed the virus to their babies. Choub Sok Chamroeun, executive director at HIV NGO Khana, said 646 people had passed away from AIDS this year, while 3,951 new infections were recorded.
While UNAIDS Cambodia country director Marie-Odile Emond said the Kingdom was on a “fast track” to achieving their goal of eliminating all new infections by 2025, she said now was “a pivotal time for us to ensure that no one is left behind”.
That especially applied to key populations with a higher risk of HIV. While HIV prevalence in the general population sits at 0.6 percent, for people who inject drugs, that prevalence jumps to a whopping 23 percent.
For transgender people, the rate is 5.9 percent, while for entertainment workers, it’s 4.6 percent. Men who have sex with men have an HIV prevalence of 2.3 percent.
ARV Users Association program manager Heng Chheangkim added another “invisible” group were prison inmates, with his organisation currently helping 106 HIV patients – and diagnosing seven new cases this year – within the walls of the capital’s Prey Sar prison. Those 106 inmates represent 1.8 percent of the prison, an infection rate three times the national average.
“HIV-positive prisoners are particularly vulnerable – often lacking a social support network and facing notable difficulties in accessing and adhering to treatment,” he said.
A study earlier this year highlighted the plight of women like Tha, for whom traditional Khmer values made it difficult to challenge their husbands about their infidelities or unwillingness to wear condoms, which heightens risk of HIV infection.
Gender expert Kasumi Nagakawa said although sex workers and their clients were well aware of the HIV risk, sometimes failure to use condoms came down to a drunken clientele. She added that other entertainment workers, such as promoters and those in massage parlours, could sometimes be pressured by clients to not use condoms, and be deterred by police who continued to seize condoms as “evidence” of sex work.