Fear has gripped the city since news broke about deadly tainted rice wine, and scores of patients continuously flow into Calmette Hospital claiming symptoms of poisoning.
It’s in the water. It’s in the fruit. It’s in the soup, their stories go. But, in truth, it’s likely in the mind, health officials say.
“It’s just hysteria,” said Daniel Perez, municipal health adviser to the World Health Organization. He visited Calmette on Tuesday after about 55 workers at two Kandal province garment factories fell ill, and many suspected poisoning. “I’ve seen them. They have absolutely nothing. They are perfectly healthy.”
“We haven’t seen any evidence whatsoever of food-product or water poisoning,” said Stephen Borron, a consultant toxicologist from the US. “It seems to be a kind of collective fear.”
Yet the scare has killed one man and left another writhing on a Calmette floor in a pool of his own urine and blood. They weren’t poisoned; they were beaten, accused of tainting wine.
Dr Taing Sovanna said police brought in the two men, with bashed heads and bleeding limbs, after a crowd attacked them near a drink shop in Chamkar Mon district. Doctors, nurses and patients alike in the Calmette emergency room crowd claimed the men were Vietnamese.
Yet Chamkar Mon Police Chief Pol Muth said, “I don’t know what nationality the two were. They were beaten up…in fact, they came to buy wine.”
The men could not be identified. “No name, no family, no one has come for them,” Taing Sovanna said.
Health workers covered the dead man and carted him off, leaving the other alone in a hallway with a rehydration drip in his arm for more than half an hour.
Meanwhile, a steady flow of new arrivals filled the bamboo mats lining the adjacent emergency room floor.
Since Aug 24, about 60 people have died from drinking rice wine contaminated with metha-nol and about 400 have been hospitalized. At the same time, Borron said, “We’ve seen a number of patients claim to be ill from anything—from the food, the water, the meat.”
He said most new patients complain of headaches, breathing difficulties, upset stomachs and vomiting. “These are all symptoms that can be brought on by fear.”
But 29-year-old Ouk Saroeurn, lying on a mat and covered with a blanket, thought otherwise. “This morning I ate hog plum,” she said of the common green fruit. “After half an hour, I was feeling dizzy, vomiting, exhausted with diarrhea. My eyes could not see very well. My feet and hands are cold. Before I ate hog plum, I felt afraid of the poisoning. But I don’t think my fear made me poisoned.”
The hospital gives these patients a glucose drip and releases them after a few hours. “We just reassure them that there’s no evidence they’ve been poisoned,” Borron said, although doctors do not dismiss the complaints because illness is always a possibility.
Such ripple effects are common, said Borron, who was sent here by Orphan Medical, a US pharmaceutical company that donated $400,000 worth of medicine to treat the rice-wine victims. “It happens frequently when there’s any type of mass intoxication.” People see their sick friends and neighbors, he said, and fear takes over. “To them the illness is very real. They let their emotions completely overcome their state of health.”
Perez, of WHO, said the poisoning talk has consumed the capital. “Everyone around is spreading the rumors now.”