The death toll from methanol-tainted rice wine rose to 15 on Friday as two more men died after drinking it at funerals in Kompong Chhnang province, officials said.
Some 78 people have now been killed or hospitalized after drinking the wine, which was served at a number of funerals over the past month, officials said.
Authorities did not initially connect the deaths and complaints of vomiting, shortness of breath and blurred vision to the wine, which sent waves of people from Toek Phos district’s Kraing Skear commune to the provincial referral hospital starting on Wednesday.
“They don’t drink [rice wine] because it’s cheap, but because they prefer it,” according to Sorin Tiravuthy, director of the hospital, that has been inundated with victims.
The two latest victims died in their sleep at their homes early Friday after refusing medical treatment, Mr. Tiravuthy said.
“They refused to come and check their health at the hospital,” he said. “They claimed they were fine.”
About 40 patients remain in the hospital.
Cambodia and other countries in the region have struggled to regulate illicit rural rice wine producers who raise the alcohol content of their wine using methanol. Officials on Thursday said that the wine responsible for the latest batch of fatalities and illness consisted of up to 25 percent of the toxic liquid.
Police arrested the suspected wine producer on Thursday.
“Soon we will finish questioning him and will send him to the court tomorrow,” Chun Pharith, a provincial deputy police chief, said on Friday. He declined to elaborate on the details of the case.
Health Minister Mam Bunheng urged locals to stop imbibing wine made by unscrupulous producers.
“Please, people, immediately stop drinking rice wine or traditional wine produced without technical skill,” he said in a press statement.
“The Ministry of Health will cooperate with local authorities to shut down places that produce rice wine or traditional wine if there are suspicions that it is poisonous.”