Following consternation this week over the government’s decision to cease HIV testing in Peam village, health authorities released a statement yesterday seeking to allay any fears of an outbreak.
In January, five of 47 villagers tested by a local NGO returned positive results, with nine more receiving positive diagnoses soon after from a local hospital. This prompted broader testing by health authorities on Monday, which returned four positive results from a sample of 279 people.
Government authorities drew the ire of several local NGOs this week after they said that there would be no further testing in the village, despite two-thirds of the village remaining untested and a prevalence rate uncovered of just under 1.6 per cent. The national average is 0.6 per cent.
But the Ministry of Health yesterday released a joint statement with the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, stating that they had reviewed Monday’s test results and had found that “The data is not indicative of an HIV outbreak.”
WHO Cambodia’s team leader for HIV, Dr Laurent Ferradini, said yesterday that several factors have led to investigators to determine that it was not an epidemic.
Test results showed that infections had been spaced out over a long period of time; there were few new cases identified; and most importantly, he said, 112 children were tested and none had returned a positive result.
This was significant, he explained, as it indicated the low probability that transmission had occurred via re-used needles – as had been the case in Battambang province’s Roka commune in 2014, when almost 300 people were infected, many of them children.
“We are confident we don’t have to continue the systematic investigation,” he said.
“[But] It has to be clear that HIV testing is still available to villagers who want to know their status,” he added.
People would be directed to a health clinic 10 kilometres away, which he said “was far”, but “feasible”.
Meanwhile, Ly Penh Sun, director of the ministry’s National Centre for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD Control, who earlier in the week said that “those that don’t get exposed don’t need to test”, took a softer approach yesterday.
He said he was meeting with NGOs and development partners this week to consider ways to increase HIV awareness programs in the area.
With the threat of outbreak diminished, his department would not continue testing in the village, however, as it was more “sustainable” for people to go to the health centre.
“Our ultimate goal is to bring all people there; those people that think they may have been exposed,” he said.
But Choub Sok Chamreun, executive director of HIV NGO Khana, insisted there was a raft of “urgent” support services needed in Peam and greater collaboration with NGOs in the area, including trauma counselling and HIV awareness programs.
“Profiling the case urgently will also help the health authority, local authority and NGOs to further understand the route of transmission,” he said.