Battambang, Cambodia – A third round of tests has confirmed that at least 90 villagers in a small rural community in northwest Cambodia have contracted HIV in an unexplained and panic-inducing mass infection.
Dr Didier Fontenille, director of the Pasteur Institute in Cambodia, said that samples sent from Roka commune in Battambang province, where the unusually high number of infections were first detected this month, have tested positive for the virus.
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“It has been confirmed three times by different techniques. Around 90 [people] have tested positive,” Fontenille said.
More samples taken from residents in the area will be tested on Saturday, he said.
On Saturday afternoon, members of a parliamentary commission on public health attempted to address the concerns of the villagers in the northwest of the country.
Commission chairwoman Ke Sovannroth told the assembled villagers that they must not lose hope and the government was working to help them with access to HIV testing and anti-retroviral treatment.
Veat Vorn, 53, whose 11-year-old son was diagnosed with HIV earlier this month, was among the crowd.
“First he cried a lot. But after we consoled him he stopped,” she said, adding that her son, fearing he would be shunned by his friends, was afraid to go to school after his test returned positive.
Officials from Cambodia’s National Centre for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD said this week that 106 villagers, including elderly people and 19 children under the age of 15, had tested positive for HIV in the Roka area alone, a community of about 9,000 rural farmers.
As news of the infections spread and suspicion falling on a local health provider who treated residents over several years, alarm set it and local villagers flocked to health centres to be tested for the virus.
Somewhat complicating the situation, Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister, said on Thursday in a speech that he did not believe that so many had been infected with HIV, speculating that unreliable testing was likely to blame.
“It is not that we do not believe in our doctors and our equipment, but it is hard to believe,” he said.
“I do not believe it.”
Noting the unusual nature of such a large number of HIV cases in a small area, Pasteur Institute’s Fontenille said now that the cases had been confirmed, what needed to be determined was when the infections actually occurred.
Meanwhile, UNAIDS, the UN programme on HIV/AIDS, says it has joined Cambodia’s Ministry of Health to conduct a full epidemiological investigation in the affected community.
“UNAIDS is working with the authorities to ensure that anyone who may have been affected has access to essential HIV treatment, care and support services,” UNAIDS said in a statement.