Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday ordered an investigation into an apparent mass HIV infection in a remote village in the country's northwest, as the number of cased passed 100. The infections are believed to have been spread by contaminated needles.
Hundreds of panicked residents of Roka village in Battambang province have rushed in for testing since news of the infections emerged last week. Health officials say a total of 106 people have tested positive for HIV.
"I call for a thorough investigation into the issue," Hun Sen said in a televised speech, urging tests of the equipment used to verify the patients have contracted HIV.
Despite government tests that determined people were infected with the virus, the prime minister said he was sure the results were wrong, The Phnom Penh Post newspaper reported.
“Right now, 99 per cent, I don’t believe it’s AIDS,” he said. “They might have a virus, but it’s not AIDS ... Can an 80-year-old person get AIDS? And can young people who do not know anything get AIDS?”
After news of the outbreak spread, health clinics in the area began seeing several villagers wanting to be tested for the disease, according to Roka Commune Chief Sim Pov.
"The situation is that people are sad. They don’t know how to deal with it," he said, adding that more than 800 people have been tested in the past week.
Teams from Cambodia’s Ministry of Health, as well as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), have been at the site since Tuesday to review the alarmingly high number of positive results, and to offer free and voluntary testing.
"I urge everyone to stay calm and avoid listening to or spreading rumors," Minister of Health Mam Bunheng said in a statement. "We should also fully respect the privacy of the affected families and ensure they do not face stigma and discrimination."
The outbreak, in the village of about 800 residents, emerged in late November when a 74-year-old Roka man tested positive at a local health center for the virus, quickly followed by his grand-daughter and son-in-law, the ministry said.
The spotlight then moved to all of the patients — including teenagers — of an allegedly unlicensed local doctor, whom villagers suspect of spreading the virus through contaminated needles.
Local media reports said police have questioned the self-described doctor.
Mean Chhi Vun, director of the Health Ministry's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STDs, said health experts were double-checking the results. "We need to do more confirmation tests," he told AFP.
Cambodia has in the past been widely hailed for its efforts in tackling HIV/AIDS. The National AIDS Authority says the rate of HIV infection among people aged 15 to 49 has declined from 0.6 percent in 2013 to 0.4 percent in 2014.
Currently, Cambodia estimates more than 73,000 people live with the disease. The country is aiming for a zero-percent HIV/AIDS infection rate by 2020.
Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse. Phorn Bopha contributed to this report from Phnom Penh