Remote Villagers Blame Stale Water, Spirits for Malaria

By Erik Wasson
January 27, 2005

Veal Veng commune in Pursat province is one of the most dangerous places in Cambodia to fall asleep without a mosquito net.

Located more than 100 km west of Pursat town, the village lies at the base of the Cardamom mountains in an area latticed with rivers and chir-pine forests. It’s a pristine, alpine-like hideaway, untouched by development yet cursed with malaria.

The government estimates that between 50 percent and 60 percent of Veal Veng’s 7,000 residents are infected with malaria. And Disadvantaged Cambodians Organization, a local NGO funded by the German government, estimates that perhaps 95 percent of the villagers carry the parasite.

The organization traveled Wednesday to Veal Veng to impregnate bed nets with mosquito-repellent and begin a multi-year project training health workers and villagers about the disease.

“This region is covered in forests and has the highest level of malaria in the country,” DCO Chairman Sam Oeurn said.

Villagers, he said, had a limited understanding of the disease.

“We have conducted surveys among the villagers about the cause of malaria and the number one answer was drinking bad water,” he said.

He said that mosquitoes were the second favorite answer but villagers showed little knowledge of when malaria-infected mosquitoes bite (from dusk until dawn) or how to prevent bites. The third choice was “bad spirits” Sam Oeurn said.

The chairman said that he is conducting training sessions with village volunteers.

“Among the health workers there is a lot of use of traditional treatments.

Training is very limited,” he said. He said that the government has neglected the commune because it takes hours to reach over rough, unpaved roads.

Norn Saokry, manager of malaria control at the National Malaria Center, confirmed Wednesday that Veal Veng has the highest rate of malaria infection in the nation.

“Mosquitoes like to live there,” he said.

But, he denied that health workers are not properly trained in the area.

“We trained local people to treat people by testing blood through a quick-tester,” Norn Saokry said, adding that the government has visited Veal Veng regularly for at least 10 years.

The German Embassy said Wednesday that Germany has granted DCO $456,000 in support over three years.

“We identified with their work as the target is to reduce the poverty of marginalized groups,” German Embassy Charge d’Affairs Theo Kidess said Wednesday.
Sam Oeurn said that combating malaria in the area is the first step in improving the lives of its inhabitants. Since 2000, DCO has brought the villagers emergency food supplies, but the group sees education and enhancement of local agriculture as key to developing the area, once the devastating malaria plague has been beaten back.

“In this area many of the people are former Khmer Rouge fighters. The men can read because they were soldiers but among the women, there is not education and they are illiterate,” Sam Oeurn said.

“Part of our project, once their health problems are addressed, is to find sources of income for them,” he said, mentioning soy bean cultivation as one possible export market that could be fostered in the area. (Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)