Despite their impressive economic growth in recent years, the impoverished, southeast Asian nation of Cambodia still struggles to treat diseases. The small country of 15 million, which lies between Thailand and Vietnam, has received very impactful aid from the U.S. for more than 50 years. Unfortunately, diseases in Cambodia can be detrimental to preventing and alleviating severe poverty.
High rates of malnutrition and extreme income inequality — not to mention a health system that crumbled during years of war — exacerbate many persistent public health issues, including a variety of menacing diseases. Here are some of the top diseases in Cambodia and what progress the government and health organizations have made in fighting them.
Cambodia is tropical and rainy and dense jungles cover much of the countryside. With a monsoon season that can last five months, Cambodia has a climate and geography that are perfect for mosquito-borne diseases — including malaria. The parasite is still a major killer in Cambodia and threatens the lives of young children. According to the latest WHO statistics, malaria is among the top 10 causes of death for kids under five.
While malaria remains one of the top diseases in Cambodia, the government has partnered with WHO and USAID to make significant progress in the fight against malaria, creating better disease surveillance and preparedness and reaching patients who live in rural areas. Since 1999, malaria deaths in Cambodia have been cut in half by such efforts.
Epidemiologists are concerned with the sheer burden of malaria as well as the intense drug resistance that seems to always develop in western Cambodia. According to Science AAAS, since the 50s, the Pailin province near Cambodia’s border with Thailand has been ground zero for multiple-drug resistant strains of malaria. Such outbreaks have threatened the region and the global fight against malaria.
It is not clear exactly why Pailin is so prone to drug-resistance but a multitude of reasons have been suggested. The region’s dense Cardamom Mountains make providing quality healthcare a great challenge and many migrant workers travel through the area hoping to find precious rubies, going under the radar of health organizations.
Scientists are on the frontlines of understanding the latest strains of drug resistance in Cambodia, but controlling such illusive outbreaks will likely take a huge effort and cooperation on the part of Cambodia and its neighbors.
Cambodia experienced one of Asia’s worst HIV epidemics in the 90s and continues to grapple with the disease today. AIDS killed as many as 3,300 Cambodians last year, according to UNAIDS, and upward of 82,000 live with HIV currently. It is not uncommon for marginalized Cambodians to turn to commercial sex and other high-risk behaviors, which may contribute to the spread of the disease.
Nonetheless, the government and aid organizations have made progress in containing HIV and providing affordable treatment to many Cambodians. Infection rates have fallen by more than 50% in the past decade and almost all HIV patients have access to proper treatment. “Voluntary and confidential HIV testing and counseling are widely available free of charge,” for Cambodians, according to a press statement by UNAIDS from 2014, and “people living with HIV have access to free antiretroviral therapy across the country.”
The government continues to work with aid organizations to prevent the disease and help sick patients more efficiently and effectively. According to USAID, in Cambodia it is still “crucial to improve the quality and coverage of HIV/AIDS services while reducing their costs.”
According to the most recent data from WHO, tuberculosis (TB) is the second leading cause of mortality in Cambodia. USAID reports that TB kills about 13,000 citizens annually. Likewise, Cambodia has one of the highest rates of incidence of the TB bacterium, which roughly two-thirds of the population is estimated to carry.
While these statistics may seem bleak, Cambodia has exhibited phenomenal successes in alleviating the scourge of tuberculosis. USAID reports supporting 271 community-based health centers across the country that have successfully diagnosed and treated a vast majority of the 10,000 cases so far. WHO reported that in the nine years between 2002 and 2011, massive grassroots programs that made TB treatment free and accessible halved the prevalence of TB in the country.
Malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis are still some of the top diseases in Cambodia and pose real challenges for a country that is working hard to improve public health. But the success that Cambodia has exhibited in the fight against these diseases is a clear testament to what governments and international aid programs can achieve in the face of some of the world’s worst public health issues.
– Charlie Tomb