When any child dies from diarrhoea, it is a tragedy. But when diarrhoea is a leading cause of death for children under the age of 5 in Cambodia, it is an atrocity. Even though the child mortality rate in Cambodia has improved over the last two decades, far too many of our children still die unnecessarily from diarrhoea and other preventable diseases.
This is one of the reasons why the United Nations brought world leaders together 10 years ago to focus on the issues faced by the world’s developing countries. At this meeting, the Millennium Summit, unprecedented commitments and pledges were made to reduce poverty, advance human development and better integrate all countries into the global economy.
The fourth Millennium Development Goal calls on the global community to reduce the deaths of children under the age of 5 by two-thirds by 2015.
This week, world leaders will meet once again at the MDG Summit in the United States to discuss commitments and progress towards achieving those goals. Only five years remain to reach them.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Health has a national strategic plan to work specifically towards MDG 4, and through close collaboration with development partners and sheer determination, Cambodia is making progress. In fact, since 1990, we have seen a [2 percentage point] reduction in the country’s child mortality rate.
Part of our strategy to reduce child mortality has been to focus on immunisations. Between 2000 and 2005, national immunisation rates among Cambodian children increased dramatically from 39 percent to nearly 67 percent. In Cambodia, where almost 85 percent of the population lives outside of urban centres, the introduction of vaccines has had a great impact, helping to slash the country’s infant mortality rate in half. This significant shift has come through partnerships between government, donors and nongovernmental organisations and has resulted in improvements of the health system in Cambodia.
As with our immunisation efforts, we are working aggressively to defeat diarrhoeal disease. Our approach is based on an integrated model that includes oral rehydration therapy, exclusive breastfeeding, zinc supplementation, and improved hygiene, safe water and sanitation.
With increased access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation (outlined in MDG 7), Cambodia has seen a threefold increase in the percentage of people with access to improved sanitation facilities. This comprehensive approach is working to combat severe diarrhoea, save the lives of our children and protect them against other deadly diseases.
Rotavirus vaccine may soon provide us with another opportunity to save more lives from the most deadly type of diarrhoea. Recent data published in The Lancet demonstrated the effectiveness of rotavirus vaccine in Asia specifically, with clinical trial data from Bangladesh and Vietnam indicating that rotavirus vaccine can reduce severe diarrhoea cases by nearly half.
This news, coupled with the World Health Organisation’s recommendation for the vaccine’s use globally could help to accelerate another lifesaving tool for Cambodia’s children.
Eng Huot is a secretary of state at the Ministry of Health.