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Education ministry faces flak for closures

Education ministry faces flak for closures

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Children wait to be picked up from a school in Phnom Penh after kindergarten and primary schools were closed on Wednesday. Photograph: Vireak Mai/Phnom Penh Post

A number of factors were weighed when making Wednesday’s decision to close all of Cambodia’s primary schools and kindergartens in an bid to stymie the spread of EV71, but the Ministry of Health’s opinion does not appear to have been one of them.

Dr Ly Sovann, deputy director of the Communicable Disease Control Department of the Ministry of Health, said that his ministry had not counselled the Ministry of Education to shutter the nation’s classrooms.

“No. It is not recommended by the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization,” Sovann said via text message.

In fact, education officials said, the Ministry of Education didn’t even consult with the Ministry of Health in making its decision – at least not in person.

Pen Saroeun, director of the School Health Department of the Ministry of Education, said yesterday that the decision was based solely on media reports, teachers’ concerns and online materials from the Ministry of Health and the WHO.

“We did not meet face to face with Ministry of Health and World Health Organization officials, but we got the reports from the health ministry, the WHO and some schools from the provinces about the disease,” Saroeun said.

“That’s why the minister of education decided to send the report to Prime Minister Hun Sen, and the prime minister endorsed the idea of closing the schools before vacation.”

Lim Leang Se, Hun Sen’s deputy cabinet chief, could not be reached for comment.

A member of a Chinese delegation of health officials sent to Cambodia specifically to help with the EV71 outbreak, epidemologist Zhou Lei, said that the disease was contained, adding: “We don’t recommend closing down schools; this is the decision of the Cambodian government.”

WHO Cambodia communications officer Sonny Krishnan said yesterday that the health body didn’t advocate closing schools either, and on Wednesday, said that doing so “can create public panic”.

“We basically do not recommend the closing of nursery and primary schools, but it’s up to the member country to decide that, and we respect the decision of the member country,” he said on Wednesday.

According to Krishnan, the WHO hasn’t confirmed any new cases of EV71 since its last round of figures – 61 infections and 55 fatalities – was released July 13.

The prediction of a public panic seems to have been borne out in at least one corner of the country yesterday.

According to police in Banteay Meanchey province, a rumour has taken root which alleges that energy drinks, when mixed with honey, stave off the EV71 virus, prompting a run on the beverages.

“I do not believe it is true, because [if it were] the Ministry of Health would broadcast to all people to drink it,” said Mongkol Borei district police chief Si Savy, who added that he too had heard the rumours.

Chiv La, an energy drink vendor, said that business has boomed over the last few days.

“No one had bought my energy drinks so far, but I was surprised earlier this week that there were a lot of buyers coming to buy it all from my house,” he said, adding that the buyers had specifically mentioned their plans to mix the drink with honey to ward off EV71.

A father himself, La tried the concoction on his own family.

“I also gave it to my two children to drink, but I went to ask the doctors about this, and they said it is not true,” he said. “Do not believe in the rumour.”

All the same, said La, “I am happy to sell all my products”.

To contact the reporters on this story: Mom Kunthear at [email protected]
Stuart White at [email protected]
With assistance from Xiaoqing Pi

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