‘No need to panic,’ Cambodia says on virus

Paul John Caña
Cambodian hospital officials say quarantines 'not necessary'

HOPING FOR CURE. Parents and children line up for hours to avail of free medical treatment at the Kantha Bopha Children's Hospital in Phnom Penh. Photo by Paul John Cana

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Officials of a Cambodian hospital slammed the World Health Organization (WHO) for creating “unnecessary panic” about a previously unidentified disease that has so far killed over 60 children here.

“There’s no need to panic,” Dr Denis Laurent, Biologist and Deputy Director of the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital (KBCH) in Phnom Penh told Rappler. Laurent is the assistant of Dr Beat Richner, the founder and head of KBCH who was the first to sound the alarm about the disease.

The WHO has alerted neighboring countries including the Philippines about an “unknown disease” that had killed 52 children in Cambodia.

The Pasteur Institute in Phnom Penh earlier announced that it discovered Enterovirus Type 71 in about two-thirds of patients. The virus is the “perfect explanation” for the deaths, according to the institute’s virology unit head Philippe Buchy who was cited by Bloomberg.

While the Enterovirus 71 was indeed found in a majority of the fatal cases, there are still questions left unanswered, Richner said in a statement released Sunday, July 8. “We have to see now what really is causing the deadly pulmonary complication and see if a toxic factor is playing a role, too,” Richener added.

Laurent said Richener first submitted a report to the Cambodian Ministry of Health on June 20. The report detailed how 47 children have died since the end of April “most in the age from two to four years old, showing the same history and symptoms.”

Richener thought that the patients, who were suffering from encephalitis, were treated first in private clinics and hospitals “by wrong perfusions and wrong injections.” He said in the report that they were working with the Pasteur Institute to find out more about the mystery illness.

“Unfortunately, WHO gave a declaration on July 2 to [a news agency] without being clear on the facts being presented on June 29 in the Ministry Of Health by Kantha Bopha to all the [health] officials,” Richener said. “WHO was telling the whole world: new mystery killer disease in Cambodia! This was causing unnecessary panic in Cambodia.”

LONG LINE. Parents and children are hoping to avail of free medical treatment. Photo by Paul John Cana

Richener added that the issue is “not alarming.”

“In June, 75,799 sick children were treated in our outpatient stations, 16,517 severely sick children were hospitalized, among them 5,534 severe cases of the hemorrhagic dengue fever. Only 34 cases with this…‘new’ disease were hospitalized. This declaration by WHO…was neither professional nor necessary, but causing panic for nothing.”

According to the WHO, Enterovirus 71 (EV-71) causes hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD), a common infectious disease of infants and children. Symptoms include fever, painful sores in the mouth, and a rash with blisters on hands, feet and buttocks.

“The disease is very common in places like Vietnam and China,” Laurent added. “These [cases in Cambodia], however, are very severe cases. There was no reason for WHO to publish anything until we have had [the results of the tests].”

According to Laurent, no new fatalities from the disease have been reported since the latest statement issued by the hospital Sunday.

Laurent spoke to Rappler.com outside the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital in Phnom Penh, where about 400 patients were lined up waiting their turn for treatment. Many arrived well before dawn. “They come here because it is free of charge. There is no discrimination and there are very good facilities,” he said.

In the Philippines, health officials are closely monitoring passengers arriving from or who have had a stopover in Cambodia.

Laurent said that while he is no position to advise various countries on their policies, he does not believe health quarantines are necessary. – Rappler.com

Paul John Caña is the managing editor of Lifestyle Asia magazine and is a live music geek. Email him at pjcana@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @pauljohncana 

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