By Kenneth Wilson
Cambodia has one of the highest rates in the world of deaths by lightning. At 7.8 deaths per million people, (2007 to 2011) the measure is exceeded by only a few other countries, for example, South Africa, at 8.8.
Global location plays a pivotal role and countries located in tropical and subtropical regions have higher death rates because these areas have more storms. Some other countries have reported yearly death averages of: Thailand, 2.6; Vietnam, 1.2; Japan, 0.1; China, 1.3; U.S., 0.2.
Cambodia’s high number of 7.8 was the average for deaths in five years as reported by the National Committee for Disaster Management: 165 (2011), 114 (2010), 140 (2009), 95 (2008) and 45 (2007), then divided by the average population over the same years, which was 14.4 million. For 2012, no final death report has been made, although the death count for the first nine months was 100. It is important to stress that these figures are only as good as the reporting, collation, and dissemination thereof.
Since the beginning of time, mankind has attributed lightning deaths to everything from supernatural forces to superstition, and now even global warming. Certainly one factor, the frequency of seasonal storms, is a very real contributor, but perhaps the most important factor is the lack of awareness of protective measures, which if taken, would greatly reduce risks, deaths, and injuries. Here in lies the problem that Cambodia faces: One of not only educating those who work outdoors, but those who are likely to administer primary first aid, and medical staff.
As shown from data collected for years around the world, as far back as the 1800’s, the number people killed by lightning decreased over time as countries moved from rural to more urbanized settings. The decrease is logical given the dwindling numbers of people working outdoors—in fields, on boats, in forests—and the increase in people work inside factories or office buildings.
The latter provides protection not afforded when exposed to the elements of a storm. Numerous surveys of weather-related deaths have shown that lightning deaths are ranked in the top two overall but the loss of life is only a part of the complex picture.
Since injuries from lightning aren’t recorded in Cambodia, a comparison to the global ratio of injury to death, at proximately 10:1, cannot be made. However, if such statistics were assembled, the number of injuries here would far exceed death rates due to lightning. Injuries from lightning range from cardiac arrest and burns to neurological damage or paralysis.
These, in turn, affect quality of life through increased medical treatment costs, mental disabilities, and dependency. Beyond the actual loss of life or injury, there are additional damages: loss of income, dead livestock, destruction by fire and crop damage. All of these directly affect not only the individual, but their immediate and extended families as they cope with losses.
So what can be done? The answer is both simple and complex: Simple—broad and repetitive education of those working in rural environments, basic first aid training for those in the immediate area and specific training for doctors. The complex issue is to increase public awareness of risk factors and injury prevention and improve weather communications and forecasting.
The wet season is once again approaching and there will be preventable lightning deaths and injuries occurring in Cambodia. It is time for the NCDM and the government to put more effort toward effectively reducing these avoidable tragedies.
Dr. Kenneth Wilson, adjunct professor at Texas State University, teaches at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and has opened research laboratories in Cambodia.
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