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Questions in wake of new HIV report stats

Villagers in Battambang's Roka commune gather to receive HIV testing following an outbreak of the virus in 2014.
Villagers in Battambang's Roka commune gather to receive HIV testing following an outbreak of the virus in 2014. Heng Chivoan

Questions in wake of new HIV report stats

Agencies involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Cambodia have expressed doubts about the conclusions reached in a new report that claims the Kingdom has the highest rate of new HIV cases in Asia – a statistic inconsistent with previously published data.

The report – generated by researchers at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington – was published in the UK’s Lancet medical journal on Tuesday. From 2005 to 2015, the number of people living with HIV went from 54,880 to 82,970, the report found.

Researchers claim the rate of new HIV infections grew by an average of 6.6 per cent every year during the same period.

But Dr Ying-Ru Jacqueline Lo, coordinator of the HIV, Hepatitis and Sexually Transmitted Infections Unit at the WHO’s Western Pacific regional office, said that while the methodology used wasn’t clear enough to dismiss the report out of hand, the data didn’t appear consistent with what has been published by WHO and UNAIDS, which is “truly vetted”.

“Cambodia is one of the few countries in the region that has reversed HIV trends,” she said.

The report’s authors culled data from various sources, including comprehensive vital registration systems, something Cambodia lacks. In order “to more accurately represent the epidemic” in the country, for instance, a mortality profile from Thailand was used and adjusted to Cambodia, according to supplemental study documents.

Lo said Cambodia should be on track to eliminate new HIV infections by 2030. “We are going to have to have a discussion with the [researchers],” she said.

Based on the latest figures, there were an estimated 72,000 people living with HIV in the country.

UNAIDS Cambodia representative Marie-Odile Emond in an email said her agency was “looking at the methodology and estimates used” in the report. In 2015, the estimated number of new HIV infections was less than 1,000, she said. By the end of 2015, about 75 per cent of people living with HIV were receiving treatment.

“The data is from the National Centre for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STDs and estimates are endorsed by them,” she wrote.

The centre’s director, Dr Ly Penh Sun, couldn’t be reached, this week while Ministry of Health spokesman Ly Sovann declined to comment.

Seth Faison, spokesman for the Global Fund, which supports HIV programs in the country, said they were “studying this report, which is serious and carries broad implications”.

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