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‘Friends Helping Friends’ living with HIV/AIDS in Cambodia

© UNICEF Cambodia/2007/Laurila
During their weekly visit to Svay Rieng’s Referral Hospital, children play while they wait for their medication.

By Guy Degen

SVAY RIENG, Cambodia, 18 May 2007 – Having a network of understanding friends to share the problems of living with HIV/AIDS is difficult in remote rural areas, particularly for young children.

At Svay Rieng Referral Hospital, children with HIV and their families gather once a month for ‘Friends Helping Friends’, a programme run by the National Centre for HIV and AIDS, Dermatology and Sexually Transmitted Infections with support from various partners, including UNICEF.

Among the children is Bantun (not his real name), 11. Both of his parents died of AIDS. He lives with his aunt Neang, as well as his twin brother and elder sister, who are both HIV-negative.

During the Friends Helping Friends session, the hospital’s paediatric ward bustles with parents talking and children playing. Neang patiently waits for her turn to receive Bantun’s next course of antiretroviral drugs. Shortly afterwards, Bantun’s name is called and a doctor examines his case history and gives him a medical check up.

Health care and a support network

For most participants in the programme, however, the highlight is not seeing doctors. Hospital staff prepare a nutritious lunch of vegetables, rice and fruit. The meal offers everyone the opportunity to socialize.

“When they come to a group like Friends Helping Friends, they can find and meet with other families who share the same problems,” says UNICEF Cambodia HIV/AIDS Head of Section Haritiana Rakotomamonjy. “It’s really important for them to see that they’re not alone and they have a support network – not only at the health facility but also in their communities.”

© UNICEF Cambodia/2007/Laurila
At the Svay Rieng paediatric ward, a girl seems to be more interested in the board itself than its educational contents.

Neang has made many friends through the programme. She greatly values the support she receives from other people affected by HIV/AIDS. “It’s good because children can meet children, guardians and parents can meet each other, and there’s the chance to talk about our lives, health and living conditions,” she says.

More than 100 HIV-positive children participate in Friends Helping Friends, and UNICEF provides transport costs to and from the clinic. For Bantun and Neang, that means they can travel by motorcycle taxi instead of cycling 15 km from home to the hospital, a journey that is more difficult in the rainy season.

Encouraging more HIV testing

The programme has also encouraged more HIV-positive mothers in Svay Rieng Province to bring their children in for an HIV test – a vital step to prevent further infection.

“Before we started the programme, there were only 150 children who had taken HIV tests. Now nearly 700 children who were born from HIV-positive mothers have come for an HIV test,” notes the Deputy Director of Svay Rieng Province Health Department, Dr. Sophat An.

For Bantun, living with HIV has meant dealing with regular bouts of diarrhoea and skin rashes. Every morning he takes tablets from his green pillbox, and in the evening, from another pink pill box. Bantun says he doesn’t really mind taking the antiretroviral drugs every day.

When asked about his future, he grins, saying, “I’d like to be a teacher.”

There are an estimated 12,000 children living with AIDS in Cambodia, and many have lost one or both of their parents to the disease. Orphans are among the most vulnerable in Cambodian society. Together with caring families, UNICEF-supported programmes such as Friends Helping Friends are giving children like Bantun the chance to make friends and fulfil their dreams.




1 May 2007:
UNICEF’s Guy Degen reports on the UNICEF-supported ‘Friends Helping Friends’ programme in Cambodia.
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