malai district, Banteay Meanchey province – One person died and between 450 and 600 villagers have fallen ill, many seriously, after drinking contaminated water from a village pond earlier this month, officials said Tuesday.
The mass sickness began on Feb 7 when 376 people in Takong commune’s Boh Thom village suffered impaired vision, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, skin rashes and extreme fatigue after drinking the water, said Chhum Vannarith, director of the provincial health department.
A 26-year-old woman who sought treatment in Siem Reap province died several days later and three villagers temporarily suffered total blindness, while a fourth is still completely blind, he said by telephone.
An additional 74 villagers who drank the water have fallen ill since Feb 7 despite having boiled the water first, Chhum Vannarith said. District officials have delivered tanks of drinking water to the village, and people are no longer drinking water from the pond, he said.
More will be known about what caused the villagers to fall sick when the Institut Pasteur du Cambodge analyzes a sample of the water, he said.
Institut Pasteur du Cambodge received half a liter of the pond water Monday evening, said Krui Sumlai, the institute’s vice director of microbiology and water analysis.
The laboratory will start running tests on the sample once the Banteay Meanchey province health department has sent more information, she added.
Chhum Vannarith said he expects the information to be sent to the institute today.
Boh Thom village chief Phoeurng Setha said 604 people in the village have fallen sick since Feb 7. He identified a 32-year-old man named Vit Oeurn as having died in Siem Reap after drinking the water, rather than the unidentified woman cited by Chhum Vannarith.
Phoeurng Setha said he posted a notice at the pond on Feb 10 warning villagers not to use the water or catch fish from the pond—which has previously been the villagers’ only source of drinking water.
“We are worried about a food shortage as well because all our villagers are too exhausted to work their farms,” he said, adding that five dogs also died after drinking the water.
Rat Puth, 18, said her entire family fell ill after drinking the water about 10 days ago.
“It’s getting worse and worse,” she said of her family’s symptoms.
“My parents are exhausted and they cannot see at night,” she said. “I also drank the water and now my eyes are almost blind.”
Takong deputy commune chief Vanh Sambo claimed the incident might be related to a dispute with villagers in Battambang province’s Sampov Loun district, which neighbor’s Malai, over district border issues.
Villagers in Takong have told him they think angry villagers from Sampov Loun may have poisoned the water, he added.
Chum Sit, Sampov Loun governor, said relations between his district and Malai are generally amicable, but that some individuals living along the border get into arguments over territory.
The pond could have been poisoned by someone involved in an “individual dispute,” Chum Sit speculated.
Phoeurng Setha denied that there was any conflict between his villagers in Boh Thom and residents of Sampov Loun.
“The village is very calm, there are no problems here,” he said.
Residents interviewed in Boh Thom also made no claims that their pond had been deliberately poisoned, saying they were unaware of what might have caused their sickness.
(Reporting by Yun Samean and James Welsh in Malai, and Chhay Channyda and Elizabeth Tomei in Phnom Penh.)