Scavenging, Learning and Battling Dengue in the Dumps

 By David McFadden
August 04, 2005

For about three hours each afternoon, Lena sifts through the smoldering, leaching heaps of Stung Meanchey garbage dump, blanketed with swarming flies and acrid, white smoke.

But the 12-year-old girl’s mornings are spent at the People Improvement Organization’s education center at the rim of Cambodia’s biggest dump. The bustling center, with three classrooms decorated with youngsters’ artwork, provides scavenger children like Lena with schooling, healthcare and a shot at a brighter future.

“This program has very successfully been helping these children,” said Duong Socheat, director of the National Malaria Center. “It’s much better than before when the children of the dump had little to look forward to.”

On Friday, Socheat was joined by an associate editor of The Cambodia Daily to distribute mosquito nets and medication to about 160 children in the courtyard of the center.

Lining up in orderly rows, the children, ranging in age from 4 to 15, were told how the nets would serve as protection from mosquitoes carrying dengue fever, a viral disease also known as breakbone fever.

Unlike the mosquito that carries malaria, a parasitic disease prevalent outside Phnom Penh, dengue’s courier is an urbanite. Type 4 dengue causes hemorrhagic fever and can be fatal.

“Because all of the children here live around the dump where there are a lot of mosquitos, there is a high chance they could get sick. Some already have,” said Noun Phy Mean, who founded the PIO in 2002. “The mosquito nets will help them stay safe.”

Because no specific medication therapy exists for dengue, and the parasite that causes malaria has developed resistance to some drugs, the netting is a crucial protection against the mosquito-borne diseases.

At the center, Lena and her classmates, who all live in the slums surrounding the dump, have classes in Khmer, English and computer skills. The training is getting through to the children, eager to leave their scavenging days behind, who regularly talk to their instructors about their dreams.

“When I grow up I want to be a teacher,” said Lena, her eyes shining.