After Three Decades of War, Cambodia Faces HIV/AIDS Epidemic
The "devastating spread" of HIV/AIDS in Cambodia is occurring "[j]ust as [the country] is emerging from three decades of war and mass killings," the New York Times reports. Cambodia, where more than a million people died under the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979 and "many more" were killed in the civil war that followed, is now the "hot spot of the epidemic in Asia," according to U.N. epidemiologist Peter Ghys. Three percent of Cambodia's adult population, or 170,000 people, are thought to be HIV-positive, and experts say that the nation is at a "critical moment" of its epidemic, "when it is still possible to hold back full-scale disaster." With its "thriving" sex industry and widespread poverty, Cambodia "seems a poor candidate for a safe-sex campaign," but there "seem to be some early indications of initial positive trends," Ghys said. U.N. workers said they are seeing "signs" that HIV/AIDS awareness is "rising" and have observed "increased" condom use. The infection rate among the nation's sex workers also appears to be "dropping." However, officials "would want to see confirmation in the coming years before we declare success," he added. Geoff Manthey, country program adviser for the United Nations, said, "[D]espite everything that we were faced with -- an infrastructure that is in disrepair and human capital that has been destroyed -- we were able to have a response to expenditure that appears to have had initial, at least, results."
Combination of Risk, Ignorance
However, the "high cost" of treatment and the "painful" stigma that surrounds the disease remain obstacles to care. "What we see every day is that the number of people developing AIDS and dying is very high and it's not declining at all," Catherine Quillet, chief of the French Mission of Doctors Without Borders, said. A "combination of risky behavior and ignorance" has "fueled" the disease's spread, particularly among women, who are often infected by their husbands who contract the disease from sex workers. The end of the civil war three years ago led to the establishment of more brothels, and casual sex also seems to be "rising" among young people, leaving people who work with HIV/AIDS patients "wary" of "optimistic" predictions. "In my more pessimistic moments, I'm afraid that in the next few years more people could die of AIDS than in the Pol Pot time," Rev. James Noonan, a priest who runs the Seedlings of Hope HIV/AIDS Project, said (Mydans, New York Times, 7/7).