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Roka outbreak had high hepatitis C co-infection rates

Authorities bag evidence at a Battambang province medical centre after a large number of HIV cases in the area were uncovered.
Authorities bag evidence at a Battambang province medical centre after a large number of HIV cases in the area were uncovered. Heng Chivoan

Roka outbreak had high hepatitis C co-infection rates

Research presented by the Pasteur Institute yesterday revealed that the 2014 HIV outbreak in Battambang’s Roka commune was accompanied by a staggering rate of co-infection with hepatitis C, a finding that is “not good news” for those affected, one expert said.

The research was presented during a public event at the Pasteur Institute by Francois Rouet, head of the Pasteur Institute’s HIV/Hepatitis Unit. Researchers from various organisations took part in the study.

From November 2014 to February 2015, of the 2,045 residents who were tested for HIV in Roka, 242 were positive – a rate 20 times higher than the national average. Ninety-eight percent of the infections were of the same virus strain, indicating they shared the same origin, and unlicensed doctor Yem Chroeum in December 2015 was sentenced to 25 years in prison for spreading the HIV virus with tainted needles.

Of those who tested positive for HIV, 67 percent also tested positive for hepatitis C, Rouet said. “Co-infection with Hepatitis C was massive,” Rouet said.

Dr Didier Fontenille, director of the Pasteur Institute, said after the presentation that researchers “have been very surprised”. Fontenille noted that treatment for hepatitis C is very expensive and is only just becoming available in Cambodia.

“It’s not good news. We thought it was only HIV,” he added.

New efforts, which could take off as early as January, will aim to identify people in Roka commune who had tested negative for HIV but might be carrying the hepatitis C virus, Fontenille said.

Dr Laurent Ferradini, WHO Cambodia’s team leader for HIV, said there are plans to build up the availability of treatment for hepatitis C, noting that the disease generally progressed slowly.

“It takes time for the virus to become harmful to the liver,” he said.

In late September, Medecins san Frontieres, working with the Ministry of Health and the WHO, launched a new program in Phnom Penh to diagnose and treat people with hepatitis C free of charge.

Under the program, a clinic has been set up at Preah Kossamak Hospital. The plan is to expand the program “to more provinces later, then Roka will be next”, Ferradini said.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the location of Roka commune. It is in Battambang province, not Siem Reap province.

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