The World Health Organization has said that the Ministry of Health is doing everything it can to prevent an outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome, but the general public is at a loss for what it can do to avoid the disease.
“I was told that SARS is an infection. But I don’t see it and I don’t care,” said Sar Tha, 40, a noodle vendor.
“I am poor, so I try not to have the disease. I wish to the angel to bless me for good health. I don’t like to wear a mask because it makes it difficult to breathe,” she said.
Good hygiene also is a priority for Yan Saroeu, 63, who admitted that keeping germs at bay is more of a challenge in Kompong Chhnang province, where clean water is often unavailable.
“We just use dirty pond water to clean ourselves,” she said, adding that if she fell ill she would use traditional Khmer remedies, like scraping her skin with coins or drinking a tea made of boiled tree roots.
The housewife said she did not know if the disease was in Cambodia, but suspected that a man who recently died in her village could have had SARS.
“I am very worried because this man in my village had a sore throat last week. I saw him walking in the afternoon, and by the end of the day he was dead,” Yan Saroeu said.
The WHO has identified the SARS criteria as high fever, respiratory difficulty and proximity to infected areas. There are no known SARS cases in Cambodia.
Yan Saroeu, like many other Cambodians, said she wished she knew how to better protect herself.
“In my village, we want to know how many meters we should stand away from each other,” she said.
“I was told by my boss that I should wear a mask to prevent infection, so I wear it when I pick up passengers at the airport,” said Vorn Vichea, 24, a driver for the Apsara Tour company.
He said he is not afraid of foreign clients that had traveled through affected areas, because the radio was reporting that a cure had been found.
There is no cure for SARS, according to the World Health Organization, which has identified cases in at least 20 countries, including China, Vietnam, Thailand and Canada.
Speaking in Kandal province on Wednesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed relief that SARS has not come to Cambodia.
“If we had that disease, then people would have to wear a mask when going to the [New Year’s] ceremonies,” he said.
But because SARS has not been diagnosed in Cambodia, many say they will not waste time thinking about it.
“I don’t see anyone with it, so I never think about it,” said Su Vay, 35, manager of the Sun Shine Hotel on Sothearos Boulevard.
Employees at larger hotels appear to be better informed. Has Ponnara, a Hotel Cambodiana bell captain, said his manager returned from a Tourism Ministry meeting last week with a SARS emergency phone number and instructed all workers to refer sick clients to Calmette Hospital.
“The manager also told us to especially stay away from Chinese people and quickly clean the front desk after [they’ve approached it],” he said. “But anyway, we still provide service to them.”
(Additional reporting by Kim Chan)