As hospitals reported confirmed instances of cholera, health officials urged calm yesterday, stressing that treatment was well underway while defending their reluctance to identify the bacteria as the cause of a spate of severe diarrhea cases.
“I have never denied that there is cholera,” said Ly Sovann, deputy director of communicable disease control at the Health Ministry.
Dr Sovann emphasized that calling the disease cholera was a moot point as treatment is the same as the treatment for other diarrheic disorders.
“Cholera or diarrhea gets treated the same way. Patients should drink a lot of [rehydration solutions] or, if it is serious, travel to the hospital for treatment.”
“If we tell them it is cholera, they will be afraid and spend money on unnecessary protections,” he added.
Any silence surrounding the matter came to an end on Tuesday when Dr Beat Richner, a Swiss pediatrician and operator of the Kantha Bopha children’s hospitals, called for a “state of emergency” as cholera cases had been confirmed in his hospitals.
However, others echoed Dr Sovann’s comments yesterday. While ministry officials have been loathe to confirm that cases of severe diarrhea seen in the past month are due to cholera, they were more forthcoming yesterday, fingering public misunderstanding of the disease as the reason for their silence.
The “Ministry of Health has found cholera cases since January. We don’t issue [a notice] to the public because right now it is small,” said Ministry of Health secretary of state, Dr Heng Taykry, also the director of Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh.
“Also, if we issue [an announcement] it could make the people worry.”
“In the ears of the general public cholera does not sound good,” admitted Dr Pieter van Maaren, World Health Organization country representative. “In the past there was a very high fatality rate.”
Currently, 80 percent of those who become infected with the bacteria show few symptoms, while just 10 to 20 percent of those with serious symptoms are in danger of dehydration. With treatment, the fatality rate of the disease is below one percent, according to the WHO.
Despite their reticence in announcing the occurrences of the disease, health officials have been in the infected areas for weeks now working to treat patients and contain the disease’s spread, according to Mr Taykry, villagers and others.
“Now there is a very active campaign. When the MOH identifies clusters of acute watery diarrhea, they go in and educate people” about how to protect themselves and neighbors, said Dr Nima Asgari, a public health specialist with the WHO.
In Kompong Speu’s Pneay commune, where severe diarrhea has sickened 15 people and killed two children in the last week alone, health officials have been traveling around teaching villagers about daily hygiene, boiling drinking water and going to the hospital quickly if they contract severe diarrhea, according to commune chief Mak Thorn.
Provincial health department director Or Vanthen noted that the ministry has ordered hospitals not to charge patients suffering from diarrhea.
“This is the first time because this year many people have been getting it,” he said, adding that though his department had yet not logged any cases of cholera, he was nonetheless concerned.