Rural Cambodia unarmed vs. virus

By Ker Munthit The Associated Press

TUOL PRIK, Cambodia – Two days after Cheoun Uork’s 3-year-old daughter died, health officials told him she had succumbed to bird flu. He had never heard of the virus.

The toddler’s death was emblematic of Cambodia’s struggle to alert its countryside to the threat of bird flu. Too often, it has taken a tragedy for villagers to realize they’ve even had an outbreak.

“Had I known about such a warning, I would have taken better precautions to protect my daughter,” said Choeun Uork, 30, wearing a white T-shirt printed with a bird flu awareness message. “She was my only child, and now I have to live with regret over her death.”

The rapid spread of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu has triggered alarm worldwide, with health experts fearing it could mutate into a form easily spread among people, potentially sparking a pandemic. Since resurfacing in Asia in 2003, it has killed at least 109 people.

Yet in rural Cambodia, many remain ignorant of its threat.

Mon Puthy’s death last month – Cambodia’s fifth since January 2005 – spurred the government to intensify efforts to raise awareness. Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered an intense television and radio education campaign. But it’s a race against time.

Two weeks after the girl’s death, a 12-year-old boy in the southeastern province of Prey Veng became the country’s sixth bird flu victim.

“There’s obviously a lack of awareness in this community (about) what bird flu is,” said Megge Miller, a World Health Organization epidemiologist in Cambodia. “When we went into the field, families were asking questions, ‘What is avian influenza? What is this about?'”

Due to budget constraints, the government has focused on only five of the country’s 24 provinces. The five are considered at high risk because they are near the borders with Thailand and Vietnam, two of the countries worst hit by bird flu, said Ly Sovann, head of disease surveillance control at the Health Ministry.