For Speech and Swallowing Disorders, a Lack of Attention

About one in 25 Cambodians have speech and swallowing disorders, with tens of thousands dying each year due to related complications, according to experts.

But at the moment, there is not a single professional Cambodian speech therapist in the country, according to Weh Yeoh, managing director of OIC: The Cambodia Project, a group that works on communication disorders.

“There are no trained professionals in Cambodia, no university course, no specific public policy, nothing set up in terms of infrastructure,” Mr. Yeoh said in an interview on Monday.

“There have been people flying in and out giving therapy or trainings, but this is not sufficient…. We want universally accessible and locally led speech therapy,” he said.

A number of U.N. agencies, NGOs and government ministries took part in a closed-door meeting on Monday to discuss what can be done to address the needs of some 600,000 Cambodians with speech or swallowing disorders, which are sometimes congenital but often caused by strokes or traffic accidents.

“Tens of thousands of people die every year due to the lack of speech therapy, and that is a conservative estimate,” said Mr. Yeoh, adding that swallowing problems caused by brain damage make people 13 times more likely to die young because they can easily contract pneumonia when food or liquid enter their lungs instead of their stomachs.

In an effort to train Cambodians to deal with these problems, OIC is working on developing a new university program for speech therapists by 2020, Mr. Yeoh said.

Lao Veng, who heads the Social Affairs Ministry’s department of welfare for persons with disabilities, said the lack of professionals to deal with speech and swallowing disorders was a problem, but not a priority at the national level.

“I think commitment from my department exists. But the resources, that is not my decision,” he said. “It should be the higher level of the ministry who needs to understand the need for speech therapy.”

Mr. Veng said that developing a speech therapy course at the government’s Technical School for Medical Care would be a good place to start.

Jegannathan Bhoomikumar, director of the Center for Child and Adolescent Mental Health—the country’s only mental health facility dedicated to children—said there was a “huge need” for speech and swallowing therapy.

“We work with children up to 18 years old, and about 60 percent of the children need some sort of speech therapy or feeding skill training,” he said. “Feeding problems and speech problems are like twins; if you have one problem, you have the other.”

Chea Phearom, a rehabilitation officer at Capacity Building for Disability Cooperation, an NGO that works with OIC, said training programs should be teaching families how to deal with speech disorders on their own.

“We are not working directly with children, but we are working together with their families so that the families can continue to help their children,” she said.

Monday’s meeting put these issues on the government’s radar, Mr. Yeoh said.

“Speech therapy was recognized as something important,” he said. “And now it’s up to the decision- makers to see what they are going to do about it.”

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