koh tang – This island about 50 km off the Sihanoukville coast saw its share of fighting during the Khmer Rouge regime and now stands as Cambodia’s line of defense along the maritime border. But, it also is a battleground for malaria.
It was here in 1975 that Khmer Rouge soldiers seized a US container ship, the Mayaguez, sparking a bloody battle that left 18 US servicemen missing or dead and killed scores of Cambodians.
Today, a partially flooded Khmer Rouge gunning station is all that bears testament to the so-called Mayaguez Incident. The island, with its pristine, white sand beaches, is inhabited only by RCAF sailors protecting the maritime border with Thailand.
“No less than 40 percent of those stationed here come down with malaria each year,” said Mam Bun Heng, a secretary of state for the Ministry of Health. “Remote islands like Koh Tang and Koh Puolo Wai [about 50 km to the southwest] are among the country’s highest risk areas for malaria transmission.”
For government officials, concern over malaria is sharpened by the strategic importance of the islands. “Preventing malaria and other diseases on these islands is the fastest way to guarantee a strong naval presence here,” Mam Bun Heng said.
Mam Bun Heng was on hand to present mosquito nets and medication to naval commanders at Koh Tang and Koh Puolo Wai.
Bal Sokoeun, deputy commander of the local naval base, confirmed the importance of the 65 impregnated mosquito nets supplied to the base every six months.
“Some of our new recruits have never been exposed to malaria, and a large percentage are infected each year,” he said. “Some of them are bitten so badly that they are left bloody. This year, it was necessary to send two [naval personnel] home because of illness.”
The risk of malaria remains highest in those areas of the country that are forested and mountainous, noted Dr Stefan Hoyer, malaria control officer at the World Health Organization’s office in Phnom Penh. Places like Koh Tang have the added disadvantage of shifting weather patterns and a high turnover of inhabitants, he said.
Outside the naval presence, the island is totally uninhabited, although fishermen from surrounding islands occasionally camp there during expeditions in the Gulf of Thailand.
Efforts to assist those on these remote islands are impeded by the difficulty of reaching Koh Tang: a fact illustrated last Tuesday, when a boat carrying dignitaries from a naval vessel to shore capsized in rough waters.
(Additional reporting by Im Saroeun)