A Cambodian woman (L) pulling a child on a gurney at Kantha Bopha children's hospital in Phnom Penh. Medical experts are scrambling to respond to what the Cambodian health ministry and World Health Organization have labelled an "undiagnosed syndrome" that has claimed the lives of at least 56 boys and girls, mostly toddlers, since April. Photograph: AFP Photo / Khem Sovannara
While virologists may have identified a common infection in the mystery illness that has taken the lives of dozens of Cambodian children since April, the actual cause of the deaths is still a matter of conjecture.
The two sides racing to find the cause of the deaths and a possible cure for the illness that has plagued the Kingdom are at odds over almost everything to do with the case.
Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals, which first identified that an unusual syndrome was striking down children, alerted the Ministry of Health in June of their concerns about a possible “new deadly illness”.
Kantha Bopha says it has identified 66 cases of the mystery illness in its hospitals, 64 of the cases were fatal.
However, the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization, which is assisting the ministry’s investigations, yesterday put the number at 59 cases with 52 deaths across Cambodia – a pared down number from the initial media reports from the WHO of 60 deaths.
A joint press release from the MoH and the WHO said that their investigations were not finalised, but officials believed that the deaths were caused by severe cases of Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease, a common disease in children and infants.
Symptoms of the HFMD include fever, painful sores in the mouth and a rash with blisters on hands, feet and buttocks, said the press release.
The unknown disease, however, presents the symptoms of deadly respiratory destruction and neurological affliction, as both Kantha Bopha and the MoH and WHO have reported.
Kantha Bopha officials yesterday said they remained suspicious of the information published by MoH and WHO.
Dr Denis Laurent, assistant to Kantha Bopha Hospitals founder Dr Beat Richner, said yesterday that 64 children died of the disease in their hospitals alone.
“It’s up to you to choose,” said Dr Laurent of the discrepancy in numbers. “You can believe in the MoH, or you can believe in us.”
Richner remained concerned that the children’s deaths were caused by maltreatment and drug intoxication in private clinics.
To contact the reporter on this story: Xiaoqing Pi at firstname.lastname@example.org