kompong cham province – No one in Chhin Sovanny’s family—save her grandfather—was at work Wednesday, but everyone had a job.
The child’s mother Reth Srey Pich’s job was to touch a cold water bottle to her six-year-old daughter’s left foot as she lay on a folding chair in the small emergency room of Kompong Cham Provincial Hospital. Her father Proeung Chhi’s job was to get the gas stove working so he could boil some water.
Grandmother Kim Sambo, 45, was in charge of rubbing tiger balm on Chhin Sovanny’s right foot, and Kim Sambo’s sister waved a knitted cap over the child’s face to keep the flies away.
Only Chhin Sovanny lay still. She had been rendered immobile by dengue fever—her job was just to get better.
The emergency room was crowded with three severe dengue patients and their extended families. Doctors and nurses came in and out, checking intravenous drips and taking blood samples.
The 25-bed hospital is accommodating between 80 and 100 patients a day—about twice as many as this time last year, officials said—and many patients were sprawled out on floor mats in adjacent rooms Wednesday due to the shortage of beds.
By noon, the hospital had already seen 10 cases of dengue, three of which were serious.
Lorn Try, the hospital’s deputy director in charge of pediatrics, said his staff was rising to the occasion of the dengue outbreak, but that their resources are under serious strain.
“We have a lot of dengue patients. It’s out of control,” he said in an interview last week.
He has requested the help of 15 nursing students every month, but getting students already knowledgeable in how to treat dengue is another story.
“If we just get people who haven’t trained in dengue, it’s a problem,” he said.
According to Hay Ra, supervisor of the dengue program for the provincial health department, there have been 2,152 total cases of dengue in the province so far this year, out of which 41 have died—all of them children.
This represents a sizable chunk of the nation’s total 14,986 cases and 182 deaths from the virus to date this year.
The surge in Kompong Cham began in April, but was preceded by a handful of scattered cases throughout the dry season, which was unusual, Hay Ra said.
He said the Health Ministry has given his department 20 tons of Abate mosquito larvae-killing chemicals to distribute and has promised 20 more—but he thinks the chemicals need to be complemented by education about how to avoid dengue fever or they won’t make a difference.
Even when they are provided the larvicide chemical for free, some villagers fail to put it in their water jars because they don’t realize that it will stop mosquitoes, he said.
Other villagers say they are too poor to be able to take the time out of a day’s work to prioritize the health of their families, Hay Ra added.
“They don’t worry about children or disease. They worry …about earning money every day,” he said.
Chhin Sovanny’s attentive family isn’t sure how the young girl came down with the virus, but thinks she probably caught it when she ran off to play with other children on Chup Rubber Plantation where they all live and work in Tbong Khmum district’s Chirou II commune.
A few kilometers into the plantation, which is located more than 20 km outside of Kompong Cham town, a 43-year-old woman, who asked not to be named, sat on a bamboo palette outside her house in Village 32.
She stared out at a brand-new stupa painted bright pink and yellow that was erected last month to house the ashes of her eight-year-old daughter, who succumbed to dengue June 10.
The woman and her husband did not recognize their daughter’s symptoms at first and thought she might have the measles because they saw red spots on her skin. Skin rash, muscle pains and flu-like symptoms often accompany dengue’s signature high fever.
The couple boiled ground-up leaves from a mango tree to apply to their daughter’s skin as a salve, and waited.
“She had a severe case, but we didn’t know. We thought it would go away,” the mother said.
When their daughter’s health did not improve, they went to a private clinic where they spent $100 and finally, on the sixth day of the girl’s fever, to the provincial hospital. After two blood transfusions and one night in the hospital, their daughter died.
The woman said she is angry with the government for not spraying insecticide or providing them with abate to put in their water jars.
The husband and wife are also angry with themselves.
“Maybe it’s our fault also because we don’t know the symptoms,” her husband said.
“Now we are careful, if he gets a fever, we will take him to a health center right away,” the mother said referring to her six-year-old son.
She looked out at the vast expanse of the 15,000-hectare plantation, where the soil is a deep red color and young rubber trees are being left alone so they can grow tall and strong.
“The minute she died, they took out her body and another came to take her spot,” the mother recalled. “I was very, very shocked.”