More than 200 people have now tested positive for HIV in a mysterious outbreak of the virus in Battambang province’s Roka commune, including 17 migrant workers who returned home from Thailand last week to have their blood checked, a local official said Sunday.
The virus was first detected in Sangke district’s Roka commune in late November, though the extent of the outbreak—which has baffled health officials and resulted in the arrest of a local doctor—was not fully understood until earlier this month.
Contacted Sunday, both provincial health department director Voeung Bunreth and By Beng Sor, director of the Roka commune health center, refused to provide updated figures for the number of residents infected.
But deputy commune chief Soeum Chhom said 201 people have now tested positive at the commune health center.
“The statistic has reached 201, but the Ministry [of Health] does not allow the release of this statistic,” said Mr. Chhom, who has tested positive himself, along with his wife and two of his grandchildren.
He added that about 160 cases had been confirmed at the provincial referral hospital as of Wednesday last week, while the roughly 40 new cases have not yet been double-checked.
The deputy commune chief also said that 17 migrant workers returned home last week and had their blood tested at the commune health center, and that all 17 came up positive for the virus.
“There are about 20 people who came home from Thailand to get an HIV test, from December 25 up to today, and 17 of them tested HIV-positive, while the other three have not had the test yet,” he said.
Mr. Chhom said the migrants were mostly employed as agricultural workers and had been out of the country for as long as a year.
“They work on plantations or as gardeners and some of them haven’t been back to Battambang province for a year and some of them haven’t been…for a month.”
Officials have blamed the outbreak on Yem Chrin, an unlicensed doctor who offered medical services to many of the commune’s residents. Last Monday, the Battambang Provincial Court charged Mr. Chrin with murder punishable by life in prison and sent him to the provincial prison.
“The people who were working in Thailand came home to get tested because they were treated by the doctor [Mr. Chrin],” Mr. Chhom said, adding that with word of the outbreak spreading, he has also begun receiving reports of discrimination.
“Three people told me that when they went to the district market, they heard people talking about the HIV infection and that they should be careful around Roka villagers,” he said. “One of the three people told me that a barber would not cut his hair because…he came from Roka.”
Oum Sopheap, director of Khana, a local HIV prevention and support NGO, said HIV-positive people who face discrimination quickly lose confidence.
“They do not want to go out, they are shy and they feel they are not normal,” he said. “It is hard for them to live; when they go somewhere they are called ‘the AIDS villagers,’ ‘the AIDS family.’”
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