anlong veng town, Oddar Meanchey province – Eight months into her first pregnancy, 28-year-old Hun Nuon ended up in the only hospital of this former Khmer Rouge stronghold, fighting off the chills and fevers of malaria.
After two days in the hospital, Hun Nuon was so weak she could barely move and only talk in a low whisper. One arm lay protectively across her swollen abdomen, the other was connected to an intravenous drip.
But Hun Nuon was better off than most who catch the mosquito-borne disease that ravages the surrounding jungle. Malaria has killed as many as eight patients at this hospital in the past six months, said Dim Sopha, an RCAF doctor. Many more never make it to the hospital.
Health workers from the Ministry of Health’s National Malaria Center tested people for the disease and left medicines for patients such as Hun Nuon during a mission to this northern town last week.
Officials also brought 1,000 mosquito nets, treated with an insecticide non-toxic to humans, purchased with money donated to The Cambodia Daily Mosquito Net Campaign.
Many more nets are needed, as are medical training and medications, said the National Malaria Center’s Vice-Director Dr Doung Socheat. There are an estimated 30,000 people in villages around Anlong Veng, where there is a high risk of malaria.
Malaria is nothing new for the people and Khmer Rouge-trained medical officers here. Hun Nuon said she has had the disease twice already. But what is new is that the Khmer Rouge administration has been replaced and medicines must come from different sources.
Before the Khmer Rouge town defected to the government in April, the leaders provided medicine for the residents. Hard-line commander Ta Mok distributed quinine and Artesimine, a very strong Chinese anti-malarial medication, for each family, said Dom Chhunly, the district chief here.
But there was never enough medicine to meet the patients’ needs, said Kim Siyonn, a Khmer Rouge-trained medical assistant.
There are still not enough medicines.
The hospital’s pharmacy has bottles neatly lined up on wooden shelves. Under each bottle, labels for basic drugs such as quinine and paracetamol are written in English.
The labels were for Kim Siyonn’s English studies. Kim Siyonn explained he had been studying the language for less than four weeks. Just a few months ago, the former Khmer Rouge rulers would have killed Kim Siyonn for studying English, he said.
Now, RCAF runs this town. RCAF medical staff take care of malaria patients in Ta Mok’s unfinished hospital.
On the ground floor, RCAF soldiers lie in beds set on beautiful tile floors. A thick wooden bannister goes up the stairs to the second floor. There lie more military patients suffering from malaria, but instead of tile the floor is unfinished concrete.
Civilian patients, most with malaria, are on the third floor, which has no bannister or floor. Many of the doors are missing.
This was the first visit here by government malaria officers since the 1960s and officials are not clear what types of disease resistance are present. Malaria parasites found on the western Cambodian-Thai border are resistant to some drugs.
“This area is very difficult to provide drugs for…this [resistance to drugs] is my worry,” Doung Socheat said.
Health officials plan to return in coming months to distribute more nets and medicines. The National Malaria Center will hold training in Siem Reap for medical officers from Anlong Veng early next year, Doung Socheat said.
In the meantime, Hun Nuon began to recover, thanks to some Artesimine her husband had from an earlier distribution by Ta Mok’s associates.
Hun Nuon met her husband four years ago while he was a Khmer Rouge soldier in Kompong Cham province. Hun Nuon left her family—which she said includes her second cousin Hun Neang, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen’s brother—and followed her husband to Anlong Veng.
When asked what she feels about her situation, sitting in an Anlong Veng bed waiting for her baby to come and malaria to subside, Hun Nuon shrugged.
“I don’t have enough money to go home,” Hun Nuon said.