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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Three Surin villagers freed by Cambodia return home

SI SA KET, Dec 21 -- Three Thai nationals, who were released from imprisonment in Cambodia to mark the 60th anniversary of bilateral relations between Thailand and Cambodia, returned home Tuesday afternoon via Si Sa Ket's Chong Sangam border checkpoint.

They were joyfully reunited with their famlilies who had been waiting for them eagerly at the checkpoint. The trio thanked the Thai and Cambodian officials for their help during their imprisonment in Cambodia and facilitating their release.

The trio--Sanong Wongcharoen, Lim Phuangphet and Lan Sapsri--all natives of Surin province, were arrested in August by Cambodian border patrol police on charges of spying while collecting forest products along the border.

They were sentenced to 18 months prison in Siem Reap on charges of illegal entry by the Cambodian court after spending four months in Cambodia.

The Thai officials led by Si Sa Ket deputy governor Channa Ieamsaeng met the trio at the immigration office before leading them across the border checkpoint to Thailand.

They told reporters that on the day they were arrested, they were hunting and collecting forest products and unintentionally strayed into Cambodian territory before being arrested by Cambodian border patrol police.

They said that during their more than four-month stay in Cambodia, the Cambodian authorities took good care of them and allowed their families to visit.

The Si Sa Ket deputy governor said the release of the three Thai nationals was a good sign to strengthen bilateral relation of Thailand and Cambodia particularly in terms of trade and tourism along the border.

It could also be a good start for the future talks to open the gateway for tourists to visit Preah Vihear Temple from Thailand, he said. (MCOT online news) .
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New report finds Cambodia's HIV/AIDS fight at critical crossroads in funding, prevention

Despite Cambodia's remarkable history in driving down HIV infections, a report released today on the future of AIDS in the country argues that future success is not guaranteed and the government needs to focus increasingly on wise prevention tactics and assume more of the financing of its AIDS program.

The report, called The Long-Run Costs and Financing of / in , written by Cambodian experts working closely with staff of the Results for Development Institute (R4D), based in Washington, D.C., finds that Cambodia, in a best-case scenario, could reduce the infections to 1,000 people a year in 2031 – a half-century after AIDS was first identified. That is down from an estimated 2,100 infections last year and from the peak of 15,000 a decade ago.

But the report's authors also say that if Cambodia's AIDS efforts stall and current coverage of key services declines, especially in carefully targeted prevention, the number of infections could climb to 3,800 a year in 2031 – nearly a four-fold increase over the best-case scenario. The report concludes that the government's successful track record will only be maintained if it scales up prevention services for the most at-risk populations, such as sex workers, men having sex with men, and injecting drug users.

"We welcome this in-depth and forward-looking report for our country," said Cambodia's Minister of Health H.E. Dr. Mam Bunheng. "Cambodia has a long history of fighting HIV/AIDS head-on, with effective prevention strategies, and we believe that this report will help us sharpen our strategies. Our goal is to further prevent the number of HIV infections in our country and we will continue on that path."

In Cambodia, HIV/AIDS was first identified in 1991. Only a few years later, experts warned that the epidemic had taken off rapidly and that Cambodia risked becoming the Asian country with the worst AIDS problem. In response, the country attacked the epidemic vigorously, earning international recognition for its success. Between 1998 and last year, Cambodia dramatically reduced new infections and made anti-retroviral treatment widely available. By 2009, an estimated 93 percent of those eligible for AIDS drugs were receiving them.

Still, Cambodia's AIDS epidemic, fueled largely by unprotected heterosexual sex between men and female sex workers, remains volatile and could spread rapidly without targeted prevention efforts, the new report says.

The cost of the national AIDS program also has grown from US$21 million in 2003 to US$51.8 million in 2008, raising some concerns among government and donor officials about their ability to sustain a growing level of spending to fight the epidemic over the years to come. Donors now fund 90 percent of Cambodia's AIDS program.

The report is the third in a series of studies done by the financing group of aids2031, an international initiative that has brought together some of the world's experts on AIDS. The group also issued a report on the global trends in financing the AIDS fight, which was summarized in a paper published earlier this year in The Lancet, and a report on South Africa's epidemic, which was released in mid-November.

Robert Hecht, managing director of R4D and overall coordinator of the series of reports, said that the Cambodian study has particular significance for countries in Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe that are fighting AIDS epidemics largely confined to specific at-risk groups.

"Cambodia is an important example of a country that was facing a possible catastrophe a decade ago and has averted that thanks to bold actions," Hecht said. "But there's no room for complacency. This is the moment for Cambodia to strike a bargain with its outside funders such as the Global Fund, Australia, and the U.S. If these funders maintain a modest level of financial support to help preserve Cambodia's gains to date, the government can gradually step in to assume fuller and more sustainable funding of its AIDS program."

H.E. Dr. Mean Chhi Vun, Director of the National Centre for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD, said that the report comes at an important time for the Cambodian government as it begins to assume more of the cost of AIDS programs from donors. "This report will play a key role in our discussions on how to move forward," Dr. Vun said. "We are committed to finding the most cost-efficient solutions as well as the most effective programs. We will draw upon our own experiences over the last decade and more, but we will also use these important findings to help guide us."

The report examines the costs in fighting Cambodia's epidemic under various strategies, ranging from US$ 1.4 billion during 2009 to 2031 under the current plan, to US$2.3 billion over the 22-year period in a dramatically stepped-up prevention plan – a differential of $900 million, or nearly 40 percent. The report's authors recommend a third course that stops nearly as many new infections as the most expensive approach, but costs much less because it emphasizes spending selectively on the highest impact prevention services, such as promoting consistent condom use in high risk settings.

"Cambodia has many choices in front of it," said Dr. Vonthanak Saphonn, the lead Cambodian author of the report and Deputy Director of the National Institute of Public Health. "Our recommendation is that Cambodia needs to focus investments on HIV/AIDS in those areas that are most cost-effective. This may mean that the country has to evaluate each intervention and focus on those that are contributing the most to the national program in a cost-effective manner."

Richard Skolnik, a professor of public health at George Washington University and the lead technical adviser to R4D on the project, said he believes the country's past history of success in fighting AIDS bodes well for the future. But he said difficult financial decisions will have to be made now.

"We have every reason to believe Cambodia can continue its effective fight against the epidemic," Skolnik said. "But Cambodia is very dependent on its external partners on financing, and if they don't put enough government money into the program and focus on the wisest investments, even this outstanding program could be threatened."

Tony Lisle, UNAIDS Country Coordinator for Cambodia, welcomed the report and said he hoped it would make a strong contribution to the country's ongoing fight against AIDS. "I hope this provides an opportunity for Cambodian officials to intensify their already strong efforts against AIDS with the kind of vigor it has shown in the past," Lisle said. "Cambodia has been a shining example around the world when it comes to lowering HIV infections, and I believe it can now make further adjustments that will allow it to remain a leader."
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On a mission to help Cambodia

LONG BEACH: Doctor who escaped death in Killing Fields gathers team for medical trip.

By Greg Mellen, Staff Writer

Dr. Song Tan, center left, and Dr. Tony Chi, DMD, help others in packaging medical supplies at St. Mary Medical Center's Health Enhancement Center in Long Beach for a group of local doctors headed up by Dr. Song Tan that will travel to Phnom Penh where they will set up a free clinic in a poor area of town. (Steven Georges / Press-Telegram)


LONG BEACH - As he sat in his Karing Pediatrics office Monday morning with Christmas carols playing in the background, Dr. Song Tan's mind was a million miles away.

Well, maybe more like 8,300 miles. In his homeland of Cambodia, to be precise.

That's where Project Angkor, a medical mission organized by Tan, will be staged in a poor neighborhood on the northern outskirts of Phnom Penh.

The longtime local pediatrician embarks tonight on a journey that's been five years in the planning. But it has roots that go back to the Killing Fields, where only sloppy bookkeeping kept Tan from joining the upward of 2 million who died during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Of about 500 doctors in Cambodia at the time the Khmer Rouge took over, only about 40 survived. Most were executed by the government, which targeted those with education for eradication.

Tan remembers he was among a group of doctors the Khmer Rouge said it needed to assist with patient care. A young doctor at the time, Tan was eager to do his part to care for the afflicted.

However, through a clerical error, Tan's name wasn't on the list of doctors the Khmer Rouge sought. He remembers being angry when he wasn't selected to go. Only later did he learn the group had been executed.

It wouldn't be until more than 25 years after the Khmer Rouge downfall in 1979 that Tan would return to his home country.

But when he saw the suffering and the deprivation that still exist, especially among the burgeoning youth population, the pediatrician knew he had to do something.

That's when the seeds for Project Angkor were first planted.

Tan and other Cambodian doctors and health providers revived the Cambodian Health Professional Association of America and began the process of organizing a medical mission to Cambodia.

While there have been other medical missions to Cambodia throughout the years, Tan says his effort is the first organized and primarily staffed by Cambodian-Americans.

Volunteers of Project Angkor, which Tan hopes will become an annual mission, will set up shop at the Khmuonh Health Center in the rundown Khan Sen Sok area of Phnom Penh.

Tan says his group expects to treat 500 or more patients per day between Jan. 3 and 7.

Over the past two weekends, about 50 to 60 volunteers, ranging from 12 years old to senior citizens, went through the process of packaging medical supplies for the trip. Tan says his group has packed more than 2,500 pounds of supplies for the trip, including more than 80,000 Tylenol tablets.

"We have more boxes than people to carry them," Tan said. "We are going to donate a lot (to the health center)."

A total of 52 volunteers will take part in the mission, which leaves on Dec. 29 and returns Jan. 11. In addition to operating the clinic, the group will make the mandatory side trip to Siem Riep to see the magnificent Angkor Wat ruins and visit the Angkor Hospital for Children.

At the clinic, the volunteers, who include doctors, nurses, five dentists and student helpers, will provide primary care and diagnoses.

"We want to have the most impact we can," Tan said.

The doctor said that while his team will help train the health care providers on-site in Cambodia, it will learn from the experience as well.

Tan said physicians may see diseases such as malaria and measles that are rare here and malnutrition rather than obesity.

"This won't be a one-way street," Tan said of the educational exchange. "It's a very (good) learning experience for us."

Tan also says his team will take what it learns to fine-tune its offerings for future visits. The goal is to bring over surgeons and other specialists in successive years.

Thirty-five years ago, the young doctor was denied a chance to help others. Now, he hopes to make the most of this chance.

greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1291.
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