For 23 years, Chhun Sokhon has kept a flock of sheep at her home to provide blood for testing at a children’s hospital
At Chhun Sokhon’s modest Tuol Kork home, a flock of mournful-looking, powerfully pungent sheep greets visitors at the gate. With their mottled black, brown and white wool, and bleating and tussling with each other in a huddled group, the flock of about 30 animals is an unusual sight in a country where pork and beef are the staple meats.
Sokhon’s sheep aren’t for eating though. For the past 23 years she has looked after them so that, once every couple of months, doctors from the Kantha Bopha IV children’s hospital can come and drain some of their blood for use in the hospital’s pathology laboratory.
With a broad smile, the 60-year-old explained this week that she was originally roped into the role by her aunt, who worked at the hospital at the time, because Sokhon’s home had a lot of open space around it.
“Even after my husband passed away in 1999, I still kept looking after the sheep because [the founder of Kantha Bopha] Dr Beat Richner always helps many children in Cambodia and I asked myself to contribute what I could to the children as well.”
Sokhon is given $300 a month for the sheep’s upkeep, with which she buys fruit and vegetables for them to eat, keeping about $50 left over for herself and six children.
The eldest sheep is about 12 years old and the youngest just a few weeks. Sokhon said looking after them was easy: she just had to feed them, wash them, give them somewhere to sleep and shear them of their wool once a month to keep them from getting too hot.
They sometimes died from injuries after fighting each other but never from disease, she added.
“I love to look after the sheep because I know I’m helping sick children,” she said.
At Kantha Bopha IV, Dr Denis Laurent, a biologist and deputy hospital director, explained the sheep blood was used in microbiological tests to diagnose infections and determine what sort of antibiotics should be used to treat them.
During the tests, the bacteria from the patient’s saliva, urine or spinal fluid is grown in several separate petri dishes containing “cultures” – different mixtures of “mediums” such as gelatinous nutrient-rich agar and sheep blood. The type of bacteria is identified by how it grows in the different cultures and reacts with antibiotics.
Sheep blood has fewer “inhibitors” that prevented bacterial growth than the blood of pigs, goats, horses or humans, Dr Laurent said, which made it more useful as a medium.
He said about 10 litres was collected from Sokhon’s sheep every two or three months, with about half a litre taken from each. Kantha Bopha also keeps sheep in Siem Reap to provide blood for its hospital there.
“We could buy artificial medium from outside the country, but it is 10 times more expensive than using sheep blood,” Dr Laurent said.
A spokesperson for the respected Pasteur Institute of Cambodia said the practice of using sheep blood to test for diseases was common.
“Hospitals and laboratories do that. This is normal,” the spokesperson said in an email.
While the arrangement with Sokhon has worked for the past 23 years, the conditions at her house are no longer ideal.
Tuol Kork is now a densely developed suburb with little open space. The sheep now spend their days in Sokhon’s concrete yard, occasionally meandering into the street to stretch their legs.
Sokhon doesn’t believe that’s a problem.
“Honestly speaking, I think the sheep are fine staying with me in my house, even though we don’t have much space,” said Sokhon. “They get enough food without having to walk far and they have a place to sleep.”
However, the neighbours have been complaining about the smell and Dr Laurent said the hospital was looking at moving the sheep to another location in the city.
Sokhon said she would be upset if her sheep were taken away and worried that it would be difficult to find a better place for them to live and person to look after them.
“If the hospital has to find a new place for them, I have no right to keep them – but I know that I would miss them terribly because we lived with each other for more than 20 years,” she said.