Mystery HIV Outbreak Sparks Panic In Battambang

What began as a few routine health checks late last week has snowballed into a public health panic in Battambang province’s Sangke district, where nearly 100 people have tested positive for HIV in recent days in what health officials suspect is an outbreak caused by contaminated medical tools.

Sim Pov, chief of Roka commune, where the outbreak has been centered, said that at least two patients discovered that they were HIV positive after having their blood tested at the commune health clinic on Thursday. In the ensuing days, at least 90 more villagers between the ages of 4 and 80 have also tested positive for the virus, she said.

Among those tested were a pair of 4-year-old twins, one of whom tested positive, Ms. Pov added.

“People in the villages have panicked so much. That is why today, roughly 100 more local villagers have come to the Roka commune health center to get their blood tested,” she said.

About 660 residents of Roka commune have visited the health center to get their blood examined over the past six days, Ms. Pov said, with those testing positive sent to the provincial referral hospital for a second round of testing.

UNAIDS country representative Marie-Odile Emond said that HIV tests carried out at the commune level were usually accurate.

“The community tests are used internationally but are conducted by human beings,” she said. “So there could be a small percentage of tests where positives are actually negatives.”

Ms. Emond said that of the three most common HIV transmission paths—mother-to-child, sexual intercourse and intravenous drug use—none seemed likely to be the cause of the recent infections in Battambang.

“This is a unique situation where both children and adults of different ages are infected,” she said. “The use of unsterilized medical instruments is a possible cause.”

Ieng Mouly, chairman of the National AIDS Authority, said a team of investigators was sent to Battambang on Tuesday.

“The investigation is about the use of needles, and tomorrow, we will have a clearer picture of the cause,” Mr. Mouly said. “We have suspicion of an NGO that gave vaccinations six months ago, and the use of needles by a local nurse.”

Mean Chhi Vun, director of the Health Ministry’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD (NCHADS), said his center had also sent a team to Battambang.

Hea Sik, head of the HIV/AIDS Program in Sangke district, said locals were also speculating that a health care worker was to blame for the epidemic.

“We don’t know the cause of the infection, but many people reported to us that they suspected they were infected through injection by a local medical practitioner,” he said.

In Roka village, a 63-year-old farmer who tested positive for HIV on Tuesday, and who declined to give his name due to the stigma attached to the disease, said he was “shocked.” “I’m pretty shocked, as I’m just a poor farmer and do not have any sexual intercourse with others,” he said.

His three children—aged 12, 20 and 30—tested negative, he said. Two of his grandchildren, however, came up positive in the initial test for the disease.

“[M]y two grandchildren—a 10-year-old and 9-year-old girl, whose parents tested negative—have been found to be infected,” he said.

The man said his family rarely travels to the commune health center for medical problems, and instead visits a private practitioner, who treated his granddaughters for typhoid about a year ago.

Ms. Pov, the commune chief, said the local medical practitioner whom she suspected of transmitting the disease through unsterilized medical instruments fled the commune on Sunday.

Cambodia has been internationally lauded for its success in fighting HIV, having reduced the rate of infection among people between the ages of 15 and 49 from 1.7 percent in the late 1990s to 0.7 percent today.

[email protected], [email protected]

© 2014, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.