Dotted with garment factories, Meanchey district’s Chak Angre Leu commune is more than a hub for textiles and clothing—it is where thousands of women have been enlisted by health organizations in a campaign to eradicate leprosy.
Leprosy is commonly shrouded with fear and misguided information. Tak Kao, a seamstress at Tack Fat Garment Company, was told by her grandmother that leprosy is hereditary.
In reality, leprosy is not inherited and is usually spread through coughing and sneezing. The disease is easily treated with antibiotics that curb contagion within 36 hours, said Lai Ky, head of the Ministry of Health’s National Leprosy Elimination Program. If the infected person is treated early enough and completes treatment, he or she can often avoid permanent damage, Lai Ky said.
Tack Fat is one of the six Phnom Penh garment factories where women were taught similar information earlier this year.
The program, sponsored by the International Committee of the Order of Malta for Leprosy Relief, the World Health Organization and the Ministry of Health, distributes pamphlets and offers leprosy education to factory women.
The project organizers hope that the garment workers will share what they’ve learned about leprosy with family and friends.
“When there is a big holiday like Khmer New Year, all of the garment factories will close,” Awcock said.
“We want to use those people who go back to the village where there might be [infected people], and give them information saying, ‘This is what leprosy looks like’ and that they should not be scared.”
Last March, 17,000 women participated in the program, Awcock said. In August, the program will include factories in Kandal and Kompong Cham provinces, in preparation for Pchum Ben, the holiday that celebrates the dead and ancestors.
Women at garment factories are often targeted by organizations for reproductive health and STD courses, said Tho Phalla, a foreman at Tack Fat. Because she is busy with work, and there are so many programs offered, she is not interested in taking part in the leprosy education program.
“I just saw a notice on the wall about the training,” said Tho Phalla, “I wouldn’t take such a class because during lunch, I want to eat, not take a class.”
Kim Srey Oun, a seamstress at the factory, disagrees, saying that she would be interested in learning more about the disease.
“I would like to learn how leprosy is transmitted and how to protect yourself,” said Kim Srey Oun. “But I’ve never heard of such a program.”
Although the disease was officially eliminated in Cambodia seven years ago, this declaration signifies that there is less than one case per 10,000 people.
“[Elimination] means that it is no longer considered a public health problem,” said Awcock. “That doesn’t mean it is gone.”
In Cambodia, more than 4,000 new cases were diagnosed and treated between 1999 and June 2004, according to a 2004 Ministry of Health report.
Roughly 60 percent of those diagnosed were men; the rest, women, Awcock said. The reason for this disjoint is straightforward
—it is much easier for men in Cambodia to seek treatment, especially in rural areas, he said.
Although some researchers say that leprosy might affect women differently than men, it is more probable that men travel more often, making them more likely to seek treatment, Awcock said.
“If someone feels ill, it is more likely that a man will seek treatment than a woman,” he said. “It is as simple as that.”
Prior to 1998, heavy campaigns by the government and health organizations actively sought out patients.
Although the number of new cases has declined since then, so have the efforts of health officials to identify infected patients, said Awcock.
While tuberculosis, avian flu and malaria receive the most public attention, both Awcock and Lai Ky stress that leprosy is still a major health concern.
“Leprosy has existed since 600 BC,” Lai Ky said. “It started a long time ago and the stigma is still in people’s mind. We must stay strong and let people know that leprosy is curable.”