Every April 7 is World Health Day which also marks the anniversary of the founding of the World Health Organisation in 1948. This year WHO Cambodia honours malaria field officer Yean Chheang as it celebrates the day with the theme “Good health adds life to years”.
Age seems to be no barrier to malaria field officer Yeang Chheang, and neither is the option for retirement. At 74, he still brings a missionary zeal to his work in an emergency intervention to contain and eliminate artemisinin-resistant malaria parasites that have emerged along the Cambodian-Thai border.
This containment project is led jointly by the Cambodian government’s National Malaria Control Centre and the World Health Organisation, together with its partners.
Uncle Chheang, as his colleagues fondly refer to him, is one of the field team leaders in the pilot Focused Screening and Treatment that tries to detect and treat any hidden cases of malaria in remote villages, even in people not showing signs of the disease.
“I am happy with the work; I am happy in the village,” he says, with a smile before gesturing at a mother and daughter to go for blood screening for malaria in Pailin province’s O Ro’El village in western Cambodia.
Uncle Chheang attributes his good health to working in the field. “I work in the field and it keeps me busy and makes my mind active. It’s like doing exercise,” he adds.
He says he will continue working as long as he is strong and healthy and wants his legacy to be the passing on of his skills and knowledge on malaria to younger Cambodians.
“I have taught a lot of people after the brutal Khmer Rouge occupation and passed on my medical skills,” he says.
In 1960 Uncle Chheang was sent to study in the Philippines, when he was a 23-year-old entomologist technician at the Ministry of Health’s National Malaria Control Centre, under the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
Ten years later, in a tragic turn of political events, following the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk’s government in 1970, Uncle Chheang found himself forced into the army of Field Marshal Lon Nol in the civil war against the Khmer Rouge.
“I was carrying guns instead of syringes,” he says, raising his hands in a shooting gesture. He adds: “I always slept in the trench, [while] we were on guard to prevent the Khmer Rouge from advancing to the capital.”
When the Khmer Rouge took over the capital Phnom Penh, in 1975, Uncle Chheang’s life was spared with a stroke of luck. The Khmer Rouge also needed him to fight malaria.
Uncle Chheang recalls that the Khmer Rouge used herbal and other traditional medicines instead of proper medication to treat malaria and other illnesses. “As a result of this, many people died,” he adds.
His personal suffering under the Khmer Rouge was also tragic. Uncle Chheang’s wife died in 1976 when she was 31 and he also lost his youngest son who was about one month old. Both died due to lack of food and medicines. His mother and a sister were taken away by the Khmer Rouge and are presumed dead.
The Khmer Rouge also killed Uncle Chheang’s two brothers – a police officer and a soldier in Field Marshal Lon Nol’s government. “That period was the most difficult in my life,” he recalls sadly.
Before 1975, there were more than 500 medical doctors and health workers working on malaria in Cambodia. But less than 100 of them survived the Khmer Rouge. Uncle Chheang points out that only 10 had returned to work at the National Malaria Control Centre.
Uncle Chheang managed to pick up the pieces of his life after the war against the Khmer Rouge in 1979. He married his late wife’s younger sister, Nong Bunny, who was then working as a lab technician in the National Malaria Control Centre. From that marriage he has one daughter who now works in the tourism industry. His eldest son from his first marriage is a medical doctor in the United States while his other son is a professor of Khmer linguistics at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
Today, Uncle Chheang works in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin – the epicentre of multiple drug-resistant malaria – and frequently comes across former Khmer Rouge fighters who surrendered to government forces in 1996 and were granted an amnesty.
When asked about this, he replies: “Forgiveness and compassion are the greatest human virtues. If we don’t help these people with malaria, we cease to be humans.”