Children’s hospitals in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap have reported a sharp increase in the number of acute respiratory infection cases compared to this time last year.
At the National Pediatrics Hospital in Phnom Penh, the number of children with respiratory infection has tripled during the last three weeks, hospital director Chhour Y Meng said.
This has taxed the facility to the point of overload, with the 50 doctors on staff having difficulty handling all patients, he said.
Cases at Kantha Bopha hospitals in Phnom Penh and Jayavarman VII in Siem Reap have jumped 30 percent compared to June 2004, said director Beat Richner.
Angkor Hospital for Children—where three out of four patients are usually diagnosed with respiratory infection—has also seen a slight increase compared to last year, director Jon Morgan said.
Respiratory infections normally peak at the beginning of the rainy and dry seasons, but the number of children diagnosed this month is higher than normal, said Hing Mony, deputy director of the Department of Communicable Disease Control at the Ministry of Health.
This infection can develop anywhere in the respiratory tract, including the nose, throat and lungs.
Pneumonia is the most serious form of these infections, said Jim Tulloch, Cambodia representative for World Health Organization.
Symptoms include fever, runny nose and coughing. Patients with bacterial pneumonia are treated with a five-day dose of antibiotics; only the symptoms of viral cases can be treated, said Chhour Y Meng.
Looking for a cause, some parents have been blaming their children’s respiratory problems on the current drought.
“I think it’s because of the dry wind—even adults can’t stand the weather, how can children?” said a man from Kompong Chhnang province while waiting in line with his 2-year-old niece at the Pediatrics Hospital on Monday.
Drought may have an effect on the number of cases, but respiratory infections occur throughout the world, in adults as well as children, Tulloch said.
In Cambodia, such infections are particularly severe because children are often malnourished, which can make a lethal combination with any illness, he said.
“What’s different in the developing world is that acute respiratory infection turns into pneumonia.” Tulloch said
At Angkor Hospital, malnourishment and unhygienic conditions are the main cause of the respiratory infection cases diagnosed, Morgan said.
“Government figures say that two-thirds of all children in Cambodia are malnourished,” said Morgan. “Any time children have a disease on top of malnourishment, their immune system is compromised.”
As a result, he said, “respiratory infection is a prominent problem and also the main cause of death in the very young.”
In Siem Reap, seasonal increases are common. Dust in the dry season can lead to coughing and bronchitis, but the rainy season is a breeding ground for illness as well, Morgan said. Still, it is a poor diet that makes children most susceptible to developing pneumonia if they contract respiratory infection, he added.
The rapid increase in respiratory infection cases has health workers scrambling to determine the exact cause, which might be a specific micro-organism yet to be determined, said Chhour Y Meng.
The best prevention against respiratory infection in children is simple hygiene, such as regularly washing faces and hands, he said. When symptoms appear, parents should bring their children to a health center without delay, Chhour Y Meng said.