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Monks bless elderly sick in fearful HIV commune

A medical worker calls out the names of HIV tests in Battambang province’s Sangke district
A medical worker calls out the names of HIV tests in Battambang province’s Sangke district in December last year, after a HIV outbreak was detected in the district. Heng Chivoan

Monks bless elderly sick in fearful HIV commune

Several elderly HIV-positive villagers in Battambang’s Roka commune are seriously ill, local authorities have said, with some of their families having called monks to bless them as they believe death may be imminent.

Five people living in the commune have died since a massive HIV outbreak in the area came to light late last year. All but one, a 6-month old diagnosed with a severe respiratory infection, have been elderly.

Soeum Chhorn, the 63-year old deputy commune chief, said he was one of six people in serious condition.

“Some monks have been invited by the victims’ families to give blessings. For me, I do not know how much longer I will live. I am always feeling cold and am in pain every day,” he said.

Others who he claimed were in a similar or worse condition include one other sexagenarian, two people in their late-70s and two in their mid-80s.

He said doctors had stopped giving most of them anti-retroviral therapy (ART) – the side effects of which can be dangerous for the elderly and infirm – because they were too strong. Some have tuberculosis and are receiving treatment specifically for that co-infection, he said.

Their suffering had been compounded, Chhorn continued, by the fact that recent food donations from the Cambodian Red Cross, including rice and canned fish, had been “inedible” and not fit for even animals to eat. The food was later replaced.

Kim Lab, the wife of Sim Soy, 69, said she had arranged a three-day Buddhist blessing ceremony for her “loving husband” after he returned home from hospital in terrible condition.

“His body and mouth are covered with blisters. He cannot eat or drink. He just lies on the bed, so we have invited monks to bless him,” Lab, who is also HIV-positive, said.

Dr Ly Penh Sun, director of the National Centre for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD Control (NCHADS), said he was yet to receive an update from the commune about these specific cases, but said they were not a surprise.

“Normally, with elderly people, their condition of health is quite bad already. So once they get HIV, they may get many more co-infections or opportunistic infections,” he said.

The most recent official statistics – from mid-February – show that 236 people in the commune are living with HIV, with 157 receiving ART.

Dr Masami Fujita, the World Health Organization’s HIV team leader, said that while ART “dramatically reduces” deaths for HIV-positive people, it is normal that some patients will continue to get worse.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH

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