Changing climate leads to increase in malaria in Cambodia

By Tul Pinkaew

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Sen Sles shivers with a high fever as he sits on the wooden floor of his house. Pushing himself nearer to the front of his makeshift porch, Sen tells a Cambodian Oxfam staff member that he has malaria.

"I feel bad; I have a very high temperature but I have no money to buy more medicine," he says.

Sen contracted malaria from mosquitoes, after entering the forest to collect firewood to sell because he lost all of his assets after floods leveled his rice paddy.

"I own a very small plot of land, which normally is not enough for my family's consumption, but this year the irregular flooding destroyed almost everything and I had no choice but to enter the forest," he says.

Since last year, there has been an increase of malaria patients in Cambodia's Kratie province, where Sen's village, Lovethom, is located. According to statistics from the Kratie Provincial Health Department, malaria cases increased dramatically last year and again this year after the numbers went down in 2005.

"There were more than 709 registered cases with 24 deaths last year, compared to less than 200 cases in 2005. Dengue fever cases have also increased from 65 cases in 2006 to 145 cases so far this year," says Dr. Cheam Saem, Director of the Provincial Health Department, Kratie Province.

A recent survey conducted by Cambodia's Climate Change Office found that the recent increase of malaria and dengue fever cases is connected to the change in climate conditions, explains Tin Ponlok, National Project Manager for the formulation of Cambodia's National Adaptation Program of Action to Climate Change (NAPA).

"This year especially, there has been a significant rise in dengue fever, and specialists in the country believe that climate change is the cause," he says.

Vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever are most sensitive to long-term climate change. The incubation period of mosquitoes shortens at higher temperatures, while off-season rainfall enhances mosquito breeding and survival.

"The highland areas are becoming perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes because of the humidity in the forest," Tin says.

Tin added that the geographical structure of the forest is also changing because of excessive logging and mosquitoes are also now moving to the villages.

Lovethom village, where Sen's family of five lives, borders the Mekong River and has been experiencing irregular rainfall patterns for the past three years, causing recurring floods up to four times in one year. Apart from destroying rice crops and forcing people to invade the forest, the flood is also leaving behind pools of stagnant water, a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes.

El Hop Sos, a mother of eight, says all of her children either have malaria or dengue, while her husband has also contracted malaria from working in the forest.

"There has been a lot more rain and a lot more mosquitoes in the past two years, and we just don't have the money to take the children to the district hospital," she says.

Dr. Cheam Saem agrees. "This year it has been difficult because there are more loggers, and there has been more rain, and, as a consequence, more mosquitoes," he said. He added that the department has a limited budget and Lovethom village is not categorized as a malaria risk zone, and therefore does not qualify for free medication.

Dr. Cheam Saem explains that his department has been distributing mosquito nets and providing education to those living in remote areas on how to keep themselves safe from vector-borne diseases.

Showing her torn mosquito nets, El Hop says she is very worried about her children. She is trying to find extra income to pay for the medication by working on a cassava plantation, while her husband catches fish to sell in the local market because they do not own a rice field, but it is still far from enough. With global warming forecast to disrupt weather patterns to a much greater extent over coming decades, the health crisis faced by the people of Lovethom is just a foretaste of what is to come.