Doctors puzzled by Mekong Delta HIV cases

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Nguyen Van Chien (R) of Mo Cay Nam District, Ben Tre Province, speaks with a Thanh Nien reporter May 30. Chien, 58, is one of 12 men who have tested positive for HIV due to unknown causes in a tiny commune.

After weeks of research, doctors say they are no closer to determining why and how 12 men from the same tiny Mekong Delta hamlet have contracted HIV.

Dr Tran Tan Dat, director of Ben Tre Province's HIV/AIDS Prevention Center, told the Voice of Vietnam (VOV) there was no solid evidence confirming how the men in Mo Cay Nam District's Ngai Dang Commune acquired the virus. Most of them have had HIV for at least five years and four of them are now showing signs of full-blown AIDS.

Dat also rejected an allegation made by the men that Do Van Be, a retired nurse who runs an unlicensed medical clinic at his house in Phu Dang Hamlet, gave them HIV through his needles as "baseless."

The 12 men were only given injections at Be's clinic for the last two years, though they have had HIV for at least five years, Dat said.

He also argued that Be had provided injections for dozens, if not hundreds of men, women and children who have not acquired the virus.

Dr Nguyen Quang Hien, director of the Mo Cay Nam District Medical Center, said tracking down exactly how these 12 men contracted the disease was not important.

He said it is now more important to take care of the patients and protect them from social discrimination, he said.

An increasing number of residents from Ngai Dang Commune have recently been tested for HIV, but none of them has tested positive, according to local media.

Local authorities have repeatedly called on residents not to fret.

The 12 men, however, have said they want to know how they got the disease in order to prove to their families, relatives and neighbors that they did not use drugs or have sex with prostitutes.

Phan Van Hiep, a resident of Phu Dang Hamlet, told VOV he also wanted an explanation so he could stop worrying and get on with his farmwork.

A mystery

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Ngai Dang Commune attracted public attention after local media last month ran stories about the 12 male residents, aged from 20 to 62, were all found carrying HIV.

The case came to light when Nguyen Van Chien, 58, went to a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City for kidney treatment on January 31, the Tien Phong newspaper reported.

Chien was surprised when he was told he had tested positive for HIV. After returning home, Chien assumed that he had contracted the virus after receiving injections from Be, the retired nurse who runs an unlicensed medical clinic at his house in the Phu Dang Hamlet.

He informed other villagers of the news and they went to hospitals in HCMC and Ben Tre Province to have their blood tested.

Eleven other men tested positive for the virus, six of them from one family Huynh Van Hong, his two sons, two nephews and a cousin.

Ben Tre Province's AIDS Prevention Center then conducted tests on 31 residents in Ngai Dang, and the results once again confirmed that the 12 men had HIV.

The men insisted that they did not use drugs or have sex with prostitutes, and blamed Be for using the same injection needle on them, but the retired nurse has denied the charge, saying he uses disposable syringes. He has also pointed out that his patients include women and children who have not tested positive for the virus.

Be was fined VND12.5 million (US$600) for providing medical services without a license.

"While the health authorities have not come up with an official verdict, people should not blame one quarter," Dat was quoted as saying in a Tuoi Tre newspaper report.

Be also defended himself, saying he followed medical hygiene and safety requirements with every patient.

The provincial Health Department invited doctors from the HCMC Pasteur Institute to Ngai Dang to find the exact cause. They found that the wives of 11 men (one of the 12 men is not yet married) tested negative for HIV.

HIV is transmitted primarily via sexual intercourse (including oral sex and anal sex), contaminated blood transfusions and hypodermic needles, and from mother to child during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding.

Attitude matters

The story of Ngai Dang provoked a lot of rumors. One of which is that the 12 men contracted HIV after having sex with a prostitute, who died several years ago, in the commune.

Dat (director of Ben Tre Province's HIV/AIDS Prevention Center) did not agree.

"We cannot conclude that a man had sex with a prostitute if he is found contracted HIV via sexual intercourse.

"We must consider thoroughly if he contracted the virus unintentionally, passively or intentionally."

According to Dat, the 12 men kept asking him to help them clear themselves of bad rumors.

"I told them AIDS is a disease, and they are the victims who need help, not the suspects of a crime.

"Anyone testing positive for HIV, in the first stage, will be panicking. They are afraid of being discriminated and abandoned."

Dat said the most important thing now is how the community looks at the patients. It may be good if the community regards the patients as victims of the deadly virus, not the "social ills."

For over the last months, the 12 patients were regularly provided with medicine and psychological consultation, according to Ben Tre Province's HIV/AIDS Prevention Center.

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