Hundreds Fall Ill After Eating Sandwiches at NGO Event

About 800 villagers fell ill in Siem Reap province on Saturday after eating tainted sandwiches at an event organized by World Vision about the dangers of child labor, the organization and local officials said Sunday.

About 120 villagers were still receiving treatment at local health clinics Sunday afternoon, mostly for exhaustion caused by food poisoning from sandwiches that were distributed at the event in Chi Kreng district’s Pongro Loeu commune, according to Channpheaktra Hong, public relations officer for World Vision.

A sandwich served at an event organized by World Vision in Siem Reap province on Saturday. About 800 villagers fell ill from food poisoning after attending the event. (Toch Kosal)
A sandwich served at an event organized by World Vision in Siem Reap province on Saturday. About 800 villagers fell ill from food poisoning after attending the event. (Toch Kosal)

Mr. Hong said the Christian aid organization was working with local health clinics and hospitals to ensure that there was enough space and staff to treat the sick villagers, and had prepared ambulances to transport patients to the provincial referral hospital if their condition worsened.

“Some people got too sick, which means they are too exhausted and they feel they cannot move their body, so they need to stay in the hospital to receive more treatment,” he said, adding that tents were also set up in the community to treat sick villagers.

“We will continue to monitor the situation, but the number of people who are in the hospital is decreasing, so we hope that it will get better by tomorrow,” Mr. Hong said.

Toeng Visal, a 28-year-old teacher who was among those who fell ill, said he began to feel sick on Saturday night and checked himself into the district referral hospital Sunday morning.

“I ate the sandwich in the morning and then at night I started to have a fever, stomachache, vomiting and diarrhea,” he said, adding that he returned home from the hospital Sunday afternoon.

According to a statement from World Vision, the sandwiches were provided by a local youth group that raised money by providing food for events in the area.

“The refreshment was prepared by a youth group in Chikreng district as an income generating activity, which is paid for by World Vision,” the statement says.

District governor Pov Bunthoeun said the exact cause of the sickness was still unknown.

“We cannot make a conclusion yet because inside the bread there were many ingredients, such as pickles, chopped pork, pate and chili sauce,” Mr. Bunthoeun said.

Pen Phalkun, director of the provincial referral hospital, said bacteria in the sandwiches was to blame, but that he did not know which ingredient carried the bad microbes.

“It was caused by the food they ate—the food was contaminated by bacteria, and it might be the pickles or pate, because these things easily pick up bacteria because [people] use their hands to mash them,” he said.

Provincial police chief Sort Nady said samples of the sandwiches were sent to Phnom Penh for testing by economic crime police. He said the shop that made the bread was temporarily shut down on Saturday, but allowed to reopen after officials deemed that it was not the source of the mass illness.

Mr. Hong at World Vision said officials involved in the investigation into the incident believed that herbicide used on cucumbers before they were pickled were to blame.

A representative of the youth group responsible for providing the food—who declined to give her name but was identified by Mr. Hong as “Sreyoeuy”—said she purchased the bread from a street vendor and had personally prepared the pickled vegetables and pork in the sandwiches.

As for what might have caused the outbreak of illness, she said, “I am not sure about it,” and referred further questions to World Vision, which she said had questioned her in depth about the food.

In its statement, World Vision says that it “does not want to see a situation like this happen again.”

“A thorough internal investigation will take place in conjunction with the local police investigation and the findings will help World Vision put in place specific measures to ensure that food that is provided at World Vision events are safe for consumption,” it says.

(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)

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