In a joint news release today, Cambodia's Ministry of Health (MoH) and the World Health Organization's (WHO's) Western Pacific Region Office confirmed two deaths in girls from H5N1 avian flu that were reported yesterday in the media.
In the past week Cambodia has confirmed five H5N1 cases, four of them fatal. They are the world's first H5N1 cases reported this year.
The first of the two new cases involved a 17-month-old girl from Prey Nheat village in Kampong Speu province in southwestern Cambodia. She developed a fever, cough, runny nose, and vomiting on Jan 13 and was initially treated by local private practitioners. After her condition worsened and she became very sleepy and had difficulty breathing, she was admitted to Kantha Bopha Hospital in Phnom Penh. "Unfortunately, despite intensive medical care," the news release said, she died yesterday.
The second case involved a 9-year-old girl from Thmei village in Kampot province, which lies south of Kampong Speu. She developed a cough and fever on Jan 19 and was admitted to Kantha Bopha on Jan 27 with somnolence and dyspnea, as well. She also died yesterday after intensive treatment.
All five cases have been in Phnom Penh or nearby provinces. Since 2005 Cambodia has had 26 confirmed H5N1 cases, 23 of them fatal.It's now 5:00 p.m. Tuesday on the North American west coast and about 8:00 a.m. Wednesday in Phnom Penh, and we have no more recent news than CIDRAP's. I would like to think that the WHO rapid response teams didn't find any new cases on Tuesday, and that Kantha Bopha Hospital is catching its collective breath after a very stressful week or ten days.
But that is literally wishful thinking. Cambodia's Ministry of Health hasn't announced anything new, and nothing new has appeared in the Phnom Penh Post. The story hasn't even drawn much interest in Cambodia's neighbours, even though countries like Vietnam and Thailand have plenty of bad experience with H5N1.
Even if these five cases are all that Cambodia suffers this year, they deserve intense scrutiny and informed discussion. The mechanism that triggered those cases needs to be identified (and neutralized to prevent similar future outbreaks).
Ministries of health in every hot-zone country need to demand everything that Cambodia and WHO have learned, and to publicize them the way the Hong Kong government does. Otherwise the same kind of outbreak will hit again; heaven knows human beings share an amazing deafness to warnings about their health, but that doesn't excuse their governments from at least trying.