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Questions linger on outbreak readiness

Community members wait for their names to be called outside of a medical clinic in Battambang’s Sangke district as a doctor hands out result sheets from HIV tests in 2014.
Community members wait for their names to be called outside of a medical clinic in Battambang’s Sangke district as a doctor hands out result sheets from HIV tests in 2014. Heng Chivoan

Questions linger on outbreak readiness

As the government launches an investigation into a cluster of HIV cases in Kandal province’s Peam village, officials insist that Cambodia has learned from past incidents and is adequately prepared to respond to any outbreak, though some observers yesterday questioned their optimism.

Officials from the Ministry of Health and the WHO yesterday said that changes implemented in the wake of the Roka commune HIV outbreak – which saw more than 250 cases uncovered – as well as improvements to the country’s health care infrastructure already in the works, have strengthened the Kingdom’s capacity to deal with infectious diseases.

“In case of any outbreak, we can respond to it immediately,” said Dr Ly Sovann, a Health Ministry spokesman and director of its Department of Communicable Disease Control.

After the 2014 Roka outbreak, the ministry began efforts to proactively find new HIV patients and offer treatment, said Dr Ly Penh Sun, director of the National Center for HIV, AIDS, Dermatology and STDs. Of an estimated 74,000 HIV/AIDs patients, almost 80 per cent are now receiving treatment, he said, dramatically reducing the possibility of outbreaks.

Since 2012, Cambodia has also been introducing more general measures to better enable it to respond to public health risks as part of an international framework that went into force in 2007, according to Vicky Houssiere, WHO communications officer in Cambodia.

Houssiere said the plan included measures “to support effective coordinated preparedness and response, such as surveillance, laboratories, infection and control”.

However, officials declined to offer much in the way of specific steps taken to improve responses, leaving some to question the government’s commitment.

US-trained doctor Quach Mengly said that at its core, Cambodia’s system for educating doctors remains weak.

“Training for doctors in Cambodia is very short,” he said. “And once they are out, they want to be their own boss, but because of that, everybody can do whatever they want . . . It creates a system of chaos.”

Sophal Ear, author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia who has done research on infectious disease control in Cambodia, put it more succinctly.

“Cambodia doesn’t even have adequate health infrastructure for existing everyday health care problems,” he said via email. “How would it have infrastructure necessary to deal with massive outbreaks?”

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