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60 children killed in Cambodia by mystery disease


A small child is treated at Kantha Bopha hospital in Phnom Penh. 60 children have died from a new and unidentified disease, while only two of the 62 admitted to the hopsital have survived. Photograph: Hong Minea/Phnom Penh Post

An unknown deadly illness has appeared in Cambodia, killing at least 60 children in the past three months, health officials said yesterday.

Of the 62 children admitted to the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals with similar symptoms of severe fever and respiratory and neurological destruction, only two were able to be saved, hospital founder Dr Beat Richner said yesterday.

In a letter from Richner to Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng sent on June 20 and obtained by the Post yesterday, the Swiss doctor raised the urgency of the issue and told the minister such a disease had not been seen in the past 20 years in Cambodia.

“They [the children] are suffering from an Encephalitis and in the last 6 hours they develop a most severe pneumonia," he wrote. “The X Ray and CT are showing that the alveolus [pockets in the lung for oxygen exchange] are destroyed within hours before passing away.”

All the children who died, died within 24 hours of being hospitalised in what Richner called a “dramatic evolution” of the lung-destroying disease.

At the time of the letter, 47 children had died. In the 13 days following, there have been a further 13 deaths at the Kantha Bopha hospitals.

World Health Organization public health specialist Nima Asgari yesterday confirmed the international organisation had teamed this week with the Ministry of Health to investigate the mysterious and fatal affliction.

“It is very early to find the cause. We are still trying to gather data,” Asgari said, adding it was unlikely the disease was related to dengue or the re-appearance of Chikungunya in the Kingdom.

The United Nations agency said in a June 30 report that the clinical signs of those afflicted with the disease “appear unusual,” with patients suffering from fever and a rapid deterioration of respiratory functions, although platelet counts, liver and renal functions were found normal.

Ministry of Health officials, including minister and deputy director of the Communicable Disease Control Department Ly Sovann, referred all questions to department director Sok Touch, who could not be reached for comment yesterday.

A hotline official at the Communicable Disease Control Department said two teams from the Health Ministry had visited Takeo and Kampong Cham provinces yesterday to investigate other cases of the unknown disease.

“It has happened in 14 provinces across the country,” the official said. “We have not found the cause of this disease yet, but they [patients] have severe respiratory problems,” he said, adding that a third team would go to the Kantha Bopha hospitals on Thursday.

Takeo provincial hospital deputy director Te Vantha said he had joined a meeting with Ministry of Health and Kantha Bopha officials on June 29 to discuss the situation.

“Kantha Bopha has informed us about the rapid development of a disease that can kill children within 24 hours, so we must be careful,” Vantha said. “This unknown disease happens to children mostly under the age of 5 years and the symptoms are fever, coughing and difficulty breathing.”

He said that in Takeo, there were two known cases of children dying from the unknown lung-destroying disease in June.

Speaking from the Kantha Bopha hospital in Siem Reap, where there have been two deaths, Richner said his team had been unable to definitively determine a cause yet but worried it may be the result of what he termed “wrong treatment”.

“All these children had encephalitis [acute inflammation of the brain] and were hospitalised and treated at private clinics before coming to us," he said. “I worry that a wrong treatment and drug intoxication at some private clinics has destroyed the lungs leading to a pneumonia we cannot treat.”

He added that his hospitals had been receiving a high number of encephalitis cases.

To contact the reporters on this story: Bridget Di Certo at
Chhay Channyda at



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