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Roka village HIV infection tragedy impacts ongoing

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Roka villagers visit Roka Health Centre in Roka commune, Sangke district of Battambang province. Heng Chivoan

Roka village HIV infection tragedy impacts ongoing

Roka is the name of a village of the same commune in Battambang province’s Sangke district which was the site of one of the worst medical injustices in Cambodia’s history. A village doctor named Yem Chrin used a single needle to inject all of his patients and transmitted HIV to almost 300 people.

His misconduct was a tragedy for the northeastern Battambang village. Even though he was sentenced to 25 years in prison in October 2019, the villagers remain scarred by his heinous actions.

The sound of children crying permeated an interview with a 37-year-old woman named B.S.L. She told The Post that she had five family members who were infected with HIV, including her 60-year-old mother.

She was married to a man who was not HIV positive. They have four children together, one of whom, a ten-year-old girl, also carried the virus.

She was infected when she went for treatment at Chrin’s clinic. Her daughter, who was four at the time, was also treated for a cold. The doctor’s injection passed the virus to her as well.

Although she was HIV positive, her two-and-a-half-month-old son had not contracted HIV from her because she took antiretroviral drugs before she fell pregnant.

“I met with my doctor, and he explained that if we take the medicine regularly, our blood cell count will be high enough to minimize the threat of passing the virus on. It is very important that patients take their medicine according to the doctor’s prescription,” she added.

She said that in 2014, the Buddhism for Development organisation had helped with food and mental health education for the people of Roka village who were living with HIV. In 2019, the organisation stopped working in Roka.

The nearby referral hospital has provided the retroviral drugs that they must all take daily since 2014.

People living with HIV often suffer from a shortage of food which means she and other HIV-positive people are at risk of malnutrition, she added.

“The Buddhist organisation used to help with mental health education and provided us with rice, canned fish, and other necessities. Our health was not so bad when we had enough to eat. Now that there is nobody helping us, I want to appeal to the government or any humanitarian organisations for help. It is especially important for children who are to help us who are the victim of HIV. Especially the children who are studying while living with HIV,” she said.

A 26-year-old woman named B.S.K said she too was HIV-positive because of Chrin. She has been married for about two years and has two sons, who are four and two years old. Neither her husband nor her children were HIV positive.

She said her doctor explained that they can live together without infection, provided she took her medicine.

An Roeurn, a former manager at Buddhism for Development, said that at the end of 2014, it was discovered that Chrin had infected nearly 300 villagers.

At that time, his organisation went directly to work with the victims. His organisation’s work focused on psychological counselling, drug use, and children’s education.

They completed their project at the end of 2019. Unfortunately, a number of Chrin’s victims had passed away by then.

The causes of death were old age and some opportunistic infections, as well as malnutrition, he said.

If an HIV-positive person’s immune system was attacked by another illness, they could die easily he added.

Roka commune chief Sim Pov told The Post that people living with HIV in the village had been receiving antiretroviral drugs since the end of 2014. The government provided the drugs free of charge.

The government also provided financial support to the families who qualified for a poor ID card. She had told the residents of her village that if they were experiencing severe shortages of food, they could come to her commune officials for support.

Doctors were constantly reassuring people that as long as they took their medication, they should not worry too much about the disease.

“The hospital not only prescribes medicine, but also pays for travel according to the distance – up to 5,000 riel,” she added.

Dr. Eng Samnang, director of the Roka Referral Hospital, said that currently there were 262 people living with HIV in the village, 152 of them females. Since the 2014 outbreak, his hospital had detected the virus in more than 50 children. Several of them had grown into adulthood, and currently there were only 35 HIV-positive children in the village.

In the other communes in Sangke district, there were less than ten people living with HIV, he said.

“The drugs do have some side effects, but they are not serious. Apart from medical treatment, they also receive psychological education from the hospital. Discrimination against people living with HIV is almost completely eradicated,” he said.

Dr. Hor Bunleng, deputy general secretary of the National AIDS Authority (NAA), told The Post the NAA was taking care of those who are living with HIV in Roka village.

He said that the NAA worked with the Ministry of Planning to make sure they were issued poor ID cards.

In addition, the NAA sought partners to continue supporting those people by making sure children could go to school, and creating jobs for the adult peoples. He said the NAA saw the people of Roka village as the highest priority and has done everything possible.

“They all receive support through the government’s poor ID card cash transfer programme. At the same time, we are cooperating with non-governmental organizations to enable their support. They have received their basic needs,” he said.

He explained how a person with HIV could marry a person without contracting the virus, or passing it on to their children, saying that antiretroviral drugs prevented the spread of HIV.

“Thus, even though they are HIV-positive, it is impossible for the virus in his or her body to reproduce. The amount of the virus in their body is too small to transmit to another person,” he added.

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