After more than a year of living with syphilis, Mich Khan, a 20-year-old Kompong Cham farmer, was feeling desperate, health experts say. When a neighbor told him that drinking blood from a child would cure the infectious disease, Mich Khan thought he had found the answer.
Earlier this month, he cut off the head of a 5-year-old boy to drink his blood. Now Mich Khan spends his days sitting in a jail cell, awaiting trial.
The crime stunned health experts, who say the case emphasizes the need for education about health care.
“Before doing anything, people should take the matter into consideration and think about how the treatment will affect them and especially the lives of others,” said Tia Phalla, director of the National AIDS Authority. “The man (Mich Khan) should have consulted a doctor.”
Although Mich Khan’s case is an extreme one, many Cambodians have beliefs about health care that are not based on science, such as believing breastfeeding immediately after childbirth will make a baby sick.
Others believe that being sick means your ancestors are angry at you. Some go to traditional healers, kru Khmer, to heal their broken bones or even cure AIDS. The Reproductive Health Association in Phnom Penh has attributed the low use of contraceptives to cultural reasons.
Health experts say these traditional beliefs can sometimes do more harm than good, causing people to spend more money than necessary or receive care that is ineffective or that causes negative side effects.
“Every culture has a right to develop in its own way,” said Maurits van Pelt, head of the Medecins Sans Frontieres office in Cambodia. “But we have to try to regulate it when the situation becomes dangerous.”
Some traditional treatments have gone as far as causing blindness or sterility in men, health experts say. One of the more recent dangerous practices is mixing Western drugs with traditional medicine, including steroids. This practice can cause people to form a resistance to medicine which could help them if taken properly.
“Some traditional practitioners are hijacking the values of modern medicine to make it seem like the patient is getting better,” said Sharon Wilkinson, project manager at the Options Municipal Health Department.
That isn’t to say all traditional medicine is bad. In fact, herbal and other traditional remedies increasingly are being endorsed in the West to help with discomfort ranging from common colds to child labor.
And there are times, experts say, when traditional beliefs may be more appropriate in treating sicknesses such as mental illness.
“A lot of times, traditional medicine can help because people’s own beliefs on how to get better is based on this,” said Stephan Rousseau, executive director of Medicam, an umbrella organization for health care NGOs.
The decision to turn to traditional medicine often depends on the availability of other services, and on people’s perceptions of illnesses and the quality of care, Rousseau said.
“The way it works now, there is no relation between modern doctors and traditional healers,” he said. “That means people never get referred to the right treatment or they get it when it’s much too late.”
Health officials don’t have a formal plan to deal with kru Khmer because it’s difficult to have general standards as each healer has his own way of treating people.
Him Say, 51, spent one night at Calmette Hospital to take care of his swollen kidneys but the injections the doctors gave him didn’t work, so he went to a kru Khmer.
But the herbs he has been taking still haven’t worked, so he’s been combining the medicine he received from the hospital with the traditional medicine he bought from the kru Khmer.
“The traditional healer told me that because I’m using a lot of medicines, the swelling in my kidney is not getting worse,” said Him Say, who lives in Takhmau district in Kandal province.
Nav Srey Touch, 36, also went to a kru Khmer when modern medicine didn’t cure her fever. But instead of seeking medicine, she wanted to know how to please her angry ancestors who were making her sick. The kru Khmer told her she had to burn incense and give an offering.
“I prayed to my ancestors to please cure me and then my fever went away,” Nav Srey Touch said. “The elderly used to do this and it cured them so I know it works.”
Veng Thai, director of the municipal health department at the Ministry of Health, said Cambodians, especially those living in rural areas, need to be informed of the modern ways.
“People practice these beliefs that are not developed scientifically,” he said. “Instead, it’s the habit of the ancestors.”
One of the most dangerous trends in recent years is kru Khmers who say they can cure AIDS, said Tia Phalla.
Out of desperation, many people with AIDS turn to traditional medicines, hoping they can be healed by herbs and the spirits, he said.
Ly Bunnarith, a kru Khmer in Phnom Penh, said his special herbs can cure AIDS. He also has a $20 package of herbs and medicine that can heal Hepatitis B.
“I don’t have a cure for cancer, but I can cure AIDS,” he said.
The National AIDS Authority and the Ministry of Health are trying to counter such misinformation by educating the public about HIV/AIDS through the media.
The authority, working with NGOs, also has started a “Home Healer” program in Phnom Penh to educate poor people about how to care for those with AIDS.
“Traditional practitioners and ways aren’t all bad,” Wilkinson said. “You just have to know when it’s helpful and when it’s not.”