In a departure from the country’s long-standing battle with malaria, health workers in western Cambodia will start testing villagers for the deadly parasite whether they show symptoms or not.
“I think that’s pretty unique for Cambodia,” said Stephen Bjorge, a malaria specialist for the World Health Organization in Cambodia. “I can’t remember it being done in the past.”
Health workers in Pailin province–the focal point of Cambodia’s $22.5 million malaria containment program–currently test only people with the infection’s fever-like symptoms. The trouble with that, said Mr Bjorge, is that they miss those who lack the symptoms but still carry both the parasite and the potential to pass it on.
With this pilot program, he said, “we’re particularly interested in the asymptomatic cases, those that don’t show symptoms.”
The new program also takes place amid the backdrop of the mosquito-borne parasite’s mounting tolerance to the best anti-malaria drugs. If the parasite develops full-blown resistance here, as it has to other anti-malarials in the past, they fear it will spread across the rest of Asia and finally Africa, where the parasite claims the most lives.
With the WHO’s help, government health workers plan to draw blood from every person in 10 of Pailin’s most malaria-infected villages, test the samples in a matter of days, and provide drug treatment to anyone who tests positive. The tests will be voluntary.
Mr Bjorge said the program was supposed to start yesterday to mark International Malaria Day, but ash from an Icelandic volcano, which clouded European skies this month, delayed the arrival of a population sampling specialist. They now hope to begin in a few weeks, he said.
If the program in Pailin is successful, the partners will roll out the program across the rest of Cambodia.
Officials at the Health Ministry’s National Malaria Center referred all questions to the center’s director, Duong Socheat, who could not be reached.
Malaria infected 83,777 Cambodians last year and killed 279, a 42 percent rise in infections and 33 percent increase in fatalities 2008 levels, according to the NMC.
After a decade of falling numbers, health officials attributed the sudden rise to better reporting, an early rainy season and increased human migration to Cambodia’s malaria-endemic west. They expect their containment efforts to bring the numbers back down in 2010.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)