Villagers Cope As Mysterious Illness Strikes

O’CHUM DISTRICT, Ratanakkiri province – After two of his neighbors succumbed to a mysterious and deadly illness here in a re­mote corner of the northeast, Chrieng, a Tumpuon villager, struck upon an ages-old fix.

He built a straw man to guard his house. The flimsy guard scares off the spirit that is making people in his village sick, Chrieng said, and other villagers inspired by his work soon followed with guards of their own.

Today his Ba Ngoc II village has a straw army standing before meager houses and posted at gates, some armed with wooden guns or spears. But the spirit has not been afraid.

Seven people have died and nearly 30 have fallen ill with what the World Health Organization says is most likely a potent bacterial infection passing among the villagers.

Two more cases were reported last week, dashing hopes that the worst was over after several days passed with no new cases. The epi­demic has been contained to two villages, Ba Ngoc II and Ping, in Samaki commune. Several deaths there last month marked the beginning of the outbreak.

Heightening the villagers’ fears was the thought that SARS, the severe acute respiratory syndrome that has killed more than 130 people worldwide and sickened hundreds more in Hong Kong and Hanoi, had somehow found its way deep inside the jungle to the homes of Chrieng and his neighbors.

But unlike SARS, the disease stalking the Tumpuon villages can be cured by common antibiotics. And it has been more deadly than SARS when measured by the percentage of infected people who die, with 22 percent of cases ending in fatalities, compared to less than 3 percent of SARS patients.

Adding to the mystery, says Dr Severin von Xylander, a medical officer of the World Health Organization, blood taken from the infected villagers has not shown the presence of cholera or a host of other deadly illnesses.

“Nobody can say with scientific precision what caused the outbreak but with the underlying health conditions of the people there, a normal flu epidemic could very well cause this,” said von Xylander.

The man working hardest to contain and kill the contagion has been Lan Komchoeum, who since 1989 has manned the Samaki commune health post. Paid $7 a month and armed only with common antibiotics and the most basic of medicine kits, Lan Komchoeum has spent every day of the past month fighting the deadly illness. Though Western medicine has proven effective, few of the Tumpuons trust the Ratanakkiri Provincial Referral Hospital and resist coming in for treatment. Instead they turn to Lan Komchoeum, their neighbor.

Trained by the NGO Health Unlimited, he is the closest thing to a doctor many of the villagers will ever see. In the last six weeks, through the height of the scare, he has treated 224 patients. His personal feeling about the sickness is that this year has been hotter than usual, unleashing an especially strong illness.

The villagers trust him enough to take the medicines he prescribes, but they also follow their animist beliefs. Last Tuesday, Ping village chief Tan Chan ordered a pig killed in a ceremony meant to ward off the sickness. He then shut the village to all outsiders except Lan Komchoeum.

Lan Komchoeum says he’s afraid for himself and for his wife and six children, who live near the health post, just a few kilometers from the infected areas. But he also feels duty bound to help.

“If I did not go, nobody goes,” he said.

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