The infection rate of HIV has fallen sharply in Cambodia over the last five years, new statistics show, though the rate for men who have sex with men in the sex industry remains high.
According to a study by the National Center for HIV/AIDS, the infection rate among MSM is around 2.3 percent, in an estimated population of 30,000. By contrast, the rate among straight individuals dropped from 0.48 percent in 2010 to 0.28 percent in 2014.
The statistics represent the first time that Cambodia’s MSM population has been systematically studied. The study found that only about half of MSM were aware of their health status, while the other half had failed to have their health checked, potentially making them unwitting transmitted of sexually transmitted diseases.
Choub Sok Chamroeun, a project manager and executive director of the Khana organization, said the group of MSM is comprised of mobile individuals with a pattern of low condom use.
Another group at risk for HIV are gay men who remain in the closet and may not be getting their own sexual health checked. “Primarily, they do not accept the test; they are still shy,” he said. “He fears that others might know the result.”
Meanwhile, he said, treatment for HIV should also now be seen as a kind of preventative measure. “If a lot of people go for treatment, the infection rate will be lower and lower.”
Khana and its 20 partner organizations have in the last two years trained some 700 gays or transgendered to become health counselors.
Khim Sivath, 22, living in Siem Reap, is one of them. She is also the head of the Sreysros Club, which works to raise awareness for the LGBT community.
Khim Sivath, who was born male, said she has faced discrimination since her decision to identify as a woman, five years ago. That kind of discrimination is another cause of HIV infections among members of her community, she said.
“They hide their identity because of social discrimination that regards them as alien, which is why they don’t reveal themselves, making them afraid to join society,” she said.
Cambodia’s HIV infection rate remains high in the region, and it is particularly high in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Ly Penhsun, director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STDs, told VOA Khmer that Cambodia and its international partners are seeking to eliminate new HIV infections. But a small budget remains a problem, as well as human resources, he said.
The recent study by Khana shows that MSM have a high possibility of infection, while at they same time they see less intervention and are less informed.
“The study concludes that because of their nature, the nature of MSM in Cambodia and other nations are alike,” said Yi Siyan, a doctor at Khana, who conducted the study. “They conceal their identity mostly because they are discriminated against.”
Yet another study, by Mun Phalkun, a doctor and surveillance officer at the National Center for AIDS, Dermatology and STDs, shows lower rates of HIV among the higher educated. Among the high-risk groups are not just MSM, but also women and girls working in the sex industry or entertainment, as well as intravenous drug users.