Much of Cambodia’s diagnosis, study, and prevention of transmittable diseases take place in the laboratories of the Institut Pasteur du Cambodge (IPC).
Contrary to national perception that it is a hospital, this Phnom Penh-based, non-profit organisation contributes significantly to the research on public health and understanding the country’s diseases that continually mutate and gain immunity from drugs.
IPC is directly supported by Cambodia’s Ministry of Health (MOH), the French Embassy, and the French government.
It has three missions – the first of which is in the dedicated research of the many infectious diseases found in Cambodia such as avian flu, HIV and AIDS, hepatitis, influenza, zika, rabies, Japanese encephalitis, viral hemorrhagic fever, malaria as well as other emerging viruses and pathogens.
Through providing services and support to the public via its international vaccination centre and biomedical laboratory that analyse blood samples, IPC fulfils its second mission. These include vaccinations against rabies infections, wherein the Institut sees 21,000 patients annually due to the prevalent nature of rabies especially in provinces.
The third mission is its heavy involvement in capacity-building and training of local students from universities like Institute of Technology of Cambodia, Royal University of Phnom Penh, Royal University of Agriculture, and the University of Health Sciences Cambodia, to provide specialised courses within the IPC. The courses range from two-week internships to three-year PhDs.
Dr Didier Fontenille, director of IPC, says, “We do extensive lab research, for example on the Zika virus, to test whether there could actually be an outbreak in Cambodia in the future. Whatever data and information that we collect from our research, we will inform and advise the MOH, who will then disseminate the information to the public.”
Fontenille speaks with pride when explaining how IPC’s malaria research lab is one of the most renowned in the world, as “the disease here is always becoming resistant to drugs,” while the lab researchers work on assessing the emergence and appearance of drug-resistance by collecting blood samples from mosquitoes and humans across the country, especially in Ratanakiri where the climate is different.
Besides the MOH, the Institut is also in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS), and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).
“The MoEYS has helped a lot in disseminating the awareness of dangerous diseases in Cambodia, particularly to schools as children and youths are most susceptible to the mentioned diseases,” Fontenille says.
On the other hand, MAFF “helps in IPC better undertaking risk assessments of diseases transferrable from poultry and swine to humans such as Japanese encephalitis.”
At present, the director notes, “IPC is currently being funded by the EU for a project which is focused on risk assessment of having outbreaks from forests or rural areas, which are then transferred to the urban population.”
And while a few motivated Cambodian staff are sent abroad yearly, courtesy of the French Embassy, to places like U.S, Paris, and China to upgrade their skills and knowledge, the flipside is that IPC also accepts foreign students who come to Cambodia to specifically study tropical diseases.
Fontenille’s optimism in Cambodia’s improving medical landscape is apparent: “Recently, the Cambodian Minister of Education gave grants to two local researchers from the IPC to upgrade their skills at the University of Montpelliere in France.”
“This demonstrates that things in Cambodia are changing as there is more support, more awareness, more education, and much more research can be done for the country.”