Unlicenced Cambodian doctor charged over mass HIV infection

PHNOM PENH (AFP) - An unlicensed Cambodian doctor was charged on Monday over an apparent mass HIV infection in a remote village after admitting he reused needles when treating patients, officials said.

Hundreds of panicked residents of Roka village in the western province of Battambang have flocked for testing since news of the infections emerged two weeks ago, with more than 100 people believed to have been infected.

Yem Chroeum, a 55-year-old self-styled doctor detained since last week, has admitted reusing needles and syringes on different patients, Battambang provincial police chief Sar Thet told AFP.

"He has confessed to sometimes reusing needles and syringes over the past years," said Thet, adding that the man, who is not thought to have undertaken formal medical training, "had the intention to infect villagers with the HIV virus".

Last week health officials said a total of 106 people may have been infected in Roka.

They could not immediately be reached for a new toll but the Pasteur Institute told The Phnom Penh Post newspaper Saturday that it had confirmed at least 119 cases in a third round of testing.

Formal charges were pressed against Chroeum at Battambang provincial court on Monday.

"He was charged with three counts which include the intention to infect others with HIV/AIDS, murder with cruel act, and operating an unlicenced clinic," prosecutor Nuon San told AFP.

He faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if convicted just of murder with "cruel act".

The motive for the alleged deliberate infections was unclear. Despite the murder charge, no deaths have yet been reported in connection with the case.

The outbreak in the village of around 800 residents emerged in late November when a 74-year-old Roka man tested positive at a local health centre for the virus. He was swiftly followed by his grand-daughter and son-in-law, according to the health ministry.

The infected villagers have accused Chroeum of spreading the virus by reusing contaminated needles on patients including children and the elderly.

An investigation into the outbreak by the kingdom's Ministry of Health, the World Health Organisation and UNAIDS is under way.

Cambodia has 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.