A 2-year-old boy has become the latest victim of avian influenza, bringing the total number of deaths to seven since January 21, and making Cambodia, globally, the country worst hit by the deadly virus so far this year.
The toddler from Kampot province’s Angkor Chey district died in the early hours of Tuesday morning at Phnom Penh’s Kantha Bopha II Hospital, 18 hours after he was admitted, said Denis Laurent, the hospital’s deputy director.
“Unfortunately, the boy passed away after only 18 hours of hospitalization. Of course, as with the other cases, the doctors tried to do the maximum to save him,” Dr. Laurent said, adding that the boy had been ill for about a week before his family admitted him to the hospital.
The child’s home commune, Angkor Chey, is located just 2 km from where the last fatal case of H5N1 was reported last week, when a 3-year-old girl died of the virus, Dr. Laurent said. A 9-year-old girl also died in Kampot province, in a neighboring district, in late January.
Out of the eight confirmed cases in Cambodia in the past month, only one person has survived, making it the worst single outbreak of the disease in humans in the world this year.
“We’re all working in emergency phase,” said Lotfi Allal, team leader of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Emergency Center for Transboundary Animal Disease in Phnom Penh.
Dr. Allal said the main task is to prevent the spread of the disease in poultry—an uphill battle given the underreporting of the disease by Cambodian farmers.
Rural people are hesitant to notify the authorities about their sick ducks and chickens because when their poultry are culled, they receive no compensation for their loss.
“We acknowledged long ago there are big weaknesses in this field,” Dr. Allal said, referring to the reliance by authorities on local farmers to voluntarily report possible H5N1 outbreaks.
So far, no poultry cull has been ordered in Angkor Chey commune where the latest victim lived, an official said.
“We did not find bird flu in the location where the children died so we did not incinerate any poultry,” said Khoy Khun Huor, Kampot provincial governor, speculating that diseased chickens may have been brought into the commune from other locations, which may have infected the child.
Pa Mon, Angkor Chey commune chief, said commune authorities were disseminating information about bird flu and preventing residents from transporting poultry in and out of the commune.
“Dealing with backyard poultry is much more difficult than commercial farms—which is easier to contain,” Dr. Allal explained. “The farmers are not reporting and unfortunately children play with chickens, which is why they’re the ones mainly infected.”
Sok Touch, head of the communicable disease department at the Ministry of Health, declined to comment.
With Cambodia’s H5N1 death toll now at seven, Sonny Krishnan, spokesman for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Phnom Penh, said only two other countries have confirmed two fatal cases of avian influenza this year; Egypt and China.
A 21-year-old woman from Guizhou province became the first person in China to die so far this year of H5N1. Another Chinese man is believed to have contracted the disease but recovered.
To prevent the disease from spreading, Chinese authorities placed 110 people who had been in close contact with the victims in quarantine, according to The China Daily newspaper.
In Egypt, a 36-year-old woman died of H5N1 on January 26, according to the WHO.
According to Dr. Allal, southeastern Cambodia’s border area with Vietnam is a “hotspot area” for H5N1, and Cambodian and Vietnamese officials have had cross-border meetings about prevention of the disease since September.
On Wednesday, Ouk Phon, grandmother of the latest victim, said seeking treatment in hospital earlier might have saved her grandson.
“If we had taken him there early maybe we could have saved his life,” Ms. Phon said.
“We are so sorry to lose him. I miss holding him.”