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Health experts at odds over alleged outbreak of cholera in provinces

HEALTH experts are at odds over the possibility of a cholera epidemic breaking out in the Kingdom, with Ministry of Health officials downplaying the threat and doctors from a Phnom Penh pediatric hospital saying cases could triple by March if the government does not intervene to stop the disease from spreading.

Dr Beat Richner, director of the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital in Phnom Penh, said Tuesday that the disease had been spreading for months, beginning with two confirmed cases in November 2009, followed by 10 in December, 53 in January, and 19 so far this month at his hospital alone.

He said his hospital had treated 120 suspected cholera patients in January, and that all cases had been reported to the Ministry of Health.

But Ly Sovann, deputy director of the Communicable Diseases Control Department at Ministry of Health, declined to say whether cholera cases had been confirmed, and argued that the distinction between diarrhoea and cholera was unimportant.

“Diarrhoea and cholera have the same treatment,” he said. “We are not interested in whether it is diarrhoea or cholera. The important thing is that we treat them by instructing them to drink a lot of water when they get serious diarrhoea or by sending them to referral hospitals.”

Richner said health officials were guilty of spreading misinformation about cholera, which he said should be treated very differently from seasonal diarrhoea. Suspected cholera patients, he said, should be admitted to hospital and given antibiotics immediately.

He added that cholera can kill very quickly, and called for a state of emergency to be declared in areas where a high number of diarrhoea and suspected cholera cases had been reported, including Kandal, Prey Veng and Takeo provinces, as well as the capital.

“In the worst cases, a child can die within two hours of beginning to vomit or having diarrhoea,” he said.

Diarrhoea and a handful of suspected cholera cases have been reported widely in recent weeks, and the Ministry of Health launched a nationwide sanitation and hygiene awareness campaign last week. The campaign has involved placing officials on the ground in every province to treat cases of diarrhoea.

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