When health workers visited Ratanakkiri province in May 1996, they were shocked by what they found. Malaria was ravaging most of the indigenous hill tribe villagers who live in Cambodia’s northeastern forests.
In Ka Chok village in Barkeo district, health workers found the highest malaria rates ever recorded in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia, according to Dr Stefan Hoyer, the malaria project officer for the World Health Organization. Forty-four percent of children and 28 percent of villagers overall were infected.
Officials at the National Malaria Center and the WHO reasoned at the time that if Ka Chok village had record-breaking rates, then other hill tribe villages in Cambodia’s northeastern provinces must also be suffering to the same extent.
Survey results have shown that those living and working in forested areas suffer from higher overall parasite rates than those who live near rivers, coasts or in agricultural plains.
In addition, higher rates are usually found in hill tribe villages than in villages with a majority of Khmers.
The soaring rates prompted health workers in 1996 to launch a major campaign to tackle the problem.
Ka Chok, an ethnic Jarai hill tribe village located 20 km from the Vietnam border, has been the focus of the National Malaria Center’s campaign. It is their most intensively studied village, with health workers averaging a visit every six months for the last five years.
Each time, officials have tested for malaria and either given villagers new bednets or treated old nets with chemicals that ward off mosquitoes.
Last month, officials found another surprise, although this time it was a pleasant one.
There are now just two cases of malaria in the village, according to a survey of 206 villagers performed on Feb 16.
In 1996, a hopeful Hoyer predicted that if things went well, health officials could expect a 90 percent reduction in malaria transmission in Ka Chok. Last week, Hoyer said that the village now has one of the lowest rates in the province.
“It’s the prevention,” he said. “Nothing else has changed with the village. We’ve had regular treatment with the nets and we have also given regular treatment to the those who have been sick.”
By comparison, two other hill tribe villages surveyed last month have higher malaria rates.
In Plor village in O’Ya-daw district, the ethnic Jarais had a 29 percent rate of malaria. In Longkun village in Barkeo district, the ethnic Tampuans were found to have a 15 percent rate.
Both villages had not received chemically-treated nets from the National Malaria Center before last month.