Cambodians have seen an inexorable rise in their standards of living in recent years. With the advent of modern living, coupled with rising levels of affluence, current generations are enjoying unprecedented comforts and access to experiences that were once considered rare luxuries. However, getting wealthier does not necessarily mean getting healthier.
As we have seen in many other countries, the benefits of modern living come with potential risks. For many, exercise has been replaced by entertainment. Longer hours are spent at work at the expense of a proper night’s sleep. If taken to excessive levels, habits such as eating out, drinking alcohol and smoking can take their toll.
In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that 60 percent of deaths worldwide were a result of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), especially cancer, hepatitis, stroke and heart disease.“These critical illnesses are imposing an ever greater burden on countries coping with a growing number of cases and the rising cost of treatment,” says Dr. Liu Yunguo, WHO representative to Cambodia.
NCDs are also on the rise in Cambodia. “At least 46 percent of all deaths in Cambodia are due to NCDs, especially heart disease, cancer, diabetes and lung disease, and the numbers are growing,” says Minister of Health Mam Bunheng. According to WHO’s statistics, the number of deaths due to NCDs in Cambodia was more than the total number of deaths due to traffic accidents and communicable diseases, like AIDS and tuberculosis. Executive director of the Khmer HIV/AIDS NGO Alliance, Dr. Oum Sopheap agrees, adding “With the changes in our social habits – eating, drinking, smoking, lack of exercise - we are seeing more and more cases of these silent killers.”
In Cambodia, the effects of these diseases have been especially challenging. Due to a lack of awareness and a reluctance to raise health concerns, medical treatment is frequently not sought until a relatively advanced stage of the disease. “Many of the deaths that were caused by NCDs could have been prevented if they had come to us earlier,” says Dr. Preap Ley, Director of Surgical Department at the Preah Sihanouk Hospital Center of HOPE (SHCH). “Nearly two-thirds of our cancer patients are already at Stage 3 or 4 when they first come to the hospital. At these advanced stages of cancer, it is much harder to treat and the success rate is much lower,” adds Dr. Ley.
Similarly, Choun Kim Cheng of the lung and general health department at SHCH notes that “Many cases of hepatitis, left untreated, evolve into liver cirrhosis, and then into liver cancer. We could save so many more lives if people were more aware and willing to seek treatment earlier.”
Sadly, these diseases affect not just the patient but also significantly impact their families for generations. “In many cases of critical illness, it is the families who suffer… through loss of income due to NCD-related disabilities and the financial burden of healthcare costs,” reports Dr. Liu.
Educating families and communities is the key to starting to win the battle against NCDs. While governmental and non-governmental institutions alike have been promoting public awareness of the issue, the private sector also demonstrates a keen interest in tackling critical illness. AIA (Cambodia) Life Insurance Plc (“AIA”) last month took an initiative to organise an event called ‘Fit for Hope’ to support SHCH in its efforts to promote Cambodians’ awareness of detection, diagnosis and treatment of critical illnesses.
SHCH appreciates support from the private sector. “The ‘Fit for Hope’ event on 21 October provided free breast cancer screening for 174 women, of which four cases were detected. These four women and their families are now receiving the treatment and support they need to overcome breast cancer,” says Bouy Sok, Communications and Development department at SHCH. “The event was attended by about 1,500 people and raised US$10,000 for the hospital which will help us educate people and save thousands more lives in the years to come,” adds Sok. “At SHCH, through the generosity of donors and partners like AIA, we can continue to provide free medical care for the poor and disadvantaged. But it is a fact that disease does not discriminate. NCDs can affect young and old, rich and poor,” observes Dr. Ley.
To safeguard their health and their families, an increasing number of Cambodians are seeking healthcare and financial solutions that are tailored to meet their needs. With nearly 100 years of expertise, the pan-Asian life insurance giant AIA is at the forefront of providing such solutions. “We want to support Cambodians in making healthier lifestyle choices, while delivering the solutions they need to protect themselves and their families against critical illnesses,” says Richard Bates, CEO of AIA in Cambodia. “Our protection against critical illness is unique in Cambodia as it covers both early and late stages of disease. We hope that this is only the beginning of a greater range of support we can offer to Cambodian families and communities.”
As well as staying aware of the risks and early warning signs of disease, doctors invariably advise people to adopt healthy habits. Says Dr. Ley, “Many cases of NCDs can be avoided if people eat a balanced diet, don’t drink excessively, don’t smoke and exercise regularly. And even if you don’t feel any symptoms, please see your doctor for checkups on a regular basis. It can help detect disease at early stages, which has a much higher chance of successful treatment.”