Christians Help Stem Cholera Outbreak in Cambodia

Two churches and a non-governmental organization working with the authorities have effectively stemmed a cholera outbreak in a district of Cambodia. The outbreak was part of a wider epidemic in the North-eastern Ratanakiri province that has resulted in at least 36 deaths since April.

Taveng district's health center was overwhelmed with patients by early July. The health center expressed its need for help from volunteers to provide basic health education to prevent the spread of the disease. This was the evening of the first Sunday of the month.

As soon as churches in Ban Lung district and Ta Aung heard the plea, they mobilized their young people and trained them Monday morning. By the afternoon, volunteers were conducting a community education course with 300 people in attendance.

After the meeting, the team trained 14 health volunteers from Phaw and a neighboring village. Each volunteer received a set of materials to facilitate cholera education in outlying fields and hamlets.

In one instance, a woman living in a distant hamlet was about to die. However, local taboos prevented villagers from lending a motorized canoe to take her to the health center. The village head appealed to his Christian villagers and one of them lent his boat and the woman was saved.

Within three days, the team covered seven villages, all of them hotspots, in Taveng district. As a result of the cooperation between the Ban Lung Church, Christian development NGO ICC and district health authorities, the Taveng outbreak was brought under control.

According to official statistics, there were 96 cases and four deaths reported in Taveng during the one-week period of outbreak.

Cholera, a highly contagious disease, causes violent vomiting, diarrhea and possibly death from dehydration within four hours. More than 1,700 cases of cholera have been recorded in Ratanakiri province from April to early July.

The Cambodian province saw its last serious cholera outbreak in 1999 when 275 people died. At that time, Christians were involved in developing cholera education materials, such as pictures and catchy songs, suitable for use with illiterate tribal villagers. Multiple copies of the materials were made for health center staff and village health volunteers.

Pleased with the cooperation, the provincial health department invited the Ban Lung Church to address an official government cholera meeting held July 7.

During the meeting, the church distributed cholera education materials to staff of 29 health centers and health posts throughout the province.

The church even used creative arts in its efforts to promote health education within village communities. Young volunteers were trained to conduct educational skits and community theater. On invitation, they performed at the provincial hospital for relatives of cholera patients.

At the hospital, volunteers noticed that there were too many patients living in unsanitary conditions. Many people who came to care for their sick relatives ended up contracting the disease due to a lack of knowledge concerning hygiene. Meeting the need, the team set out to disinfect the wards with clorox.

After a successful debut in the hospital, the community drama troupe was invited to provide cholera education in the villages around Ta Aung commune, where outbreaks were still happening. The church also cooperated with officials from Kon Mum district to educate its villagers.

Villagers loved the slapstick performances in their own language. One lady, rolling over with laughter, exclaimed, "This is too real!" The performances showed how cholera is transmitted at funerals and through lack of personal hygiene.

The cooperation between Christians and the local authorities encouraged other Christian groups elsewhere. One group, inactive due to persecution, was emboldened after seeing the troupe working with authorities. Its members immediately resumed worship meetings.

Christians in the village of Sek were encouraged to see that they are part of a wider, caring community of faith. The close cooperation between Christians and authorities left a good impression on community leaders and parents of young Christians in that village.

As a result of the community service, non-Christians in the predominantly Buddhist country were drawn to learn more about Christianity. A staff from one of the health centers, who worked with the Christians, turned up for a worship service at Ban Lung Church. At that meeting, the church prayed for him and other public servants and organizations engaged in fighting cholera.

The team continues to cooperate with officials in Ta Aung and Toeum communes. It is currently visiting other hotspots in Taveng district.