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A Life Dedicated to Fighting Malaria

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Malaria Champion: Yeang Chheang

Yeang Chheang - answered the call to save lives. Pix by WHO/Chhean Nariddh Moeun

It was 1962 when Mr. Yeang Chheang, then a 24-year-old malaria specialist, was on a mission to Cambodia’s southwest coastal town of Sihanouville, when he was called back to the capital.

He was re-assigned to carry out yet another greater mission to the northwestern tip of the country on the border with Thailand. He was sent to Pailin, where a malaria outbreak was devastating the lives of hundreds of people from all walks of life.

Mr. Chheang was tasked to contain this outbreak. So, without delay, he set off to Pailin.

He recalled that during this outbreak, between 20 and 30 Pailin residents died from malaria everyday.

“So many people were dying that the crematorium overflowed [as it exceeded its capacity to cremate too many bodies],” he remembered.

Unlike most medical practitioners and other intellectuals who were targeted and killed by the Khmer Rouge, Mr. Chheang’s life was spared with a stroke of luck. The Khmer Rouge also needed him to fight malaria.

Under this mission, he said the Malaria Eradication Department of Cambodia’s Ministry of Health had mobilized a 20-member-strong team that included four village malaria workers, or VMWs.

Mr. Chheang remembered that an Italian doctor named L. Cervone from the World Health Organization’s Malaria Containment Project, which was established in Cambodia in 1955, led the team.

With the intensive work, he reckoned that it took the team seven months before they could contain the outbreak despite meager resources and few local experts.

Working as an entomologist technician at the Ministry of Health’s Malaria Eradication Department, Mr. Chheang said he was sent to Manila to study about malaria in 1960 when he was 23 years old.

During his mission to contain malaria outbreak in Pailin almost fifty years ago, Mr. Chheang said his biggest challenge was to communicate with WHO’s Italian team leader who preferred to speak English instead of French – the foreign language spoken by Khmer intellectuals.

But, it was an advantage, though, he said.

Over the years, Mr. Chheang said he taught French to his Italian colleague while learning English from him till they could understand each other well in both languages.

Less than ten years later, another catastrophe broke out, but not malaria. The civil war started following the overthrow of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s government that paved the way for the first Khmer Republic of Marshall Lon Nol.

Like many health workers, Mr. Chheang said he saw his work changing completely – from fighting malaria to fighting the Khmer Rouge rebels. Mr. Chheang was promoted to the rank of a military commander in Siem Reap.

“I was carrying guns instead of syringes,” he said, raising his hands in a shooting gesture. He added: “I always slept in the trench, [while] we were on guard to prevent the Khmer Rouge.”

However, Mr. Chheang said he was taken back to work on another malaria prevention program in Siem Reap province after about a year in the army till the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975.

Unlike most medical practitioners and other intellectuals who were targeted and killed by the Khmer Rouge, Mr. Chheang’s life was spared with a stroke of luck.

The Khmer Rouge also needed him to fight malaria. Mr. Chheang said the Khmer Rouge used herbal and other traditional medicines instead of the modern medication to treat malaria and other illnesses.

Now at the age of 72, Mr. Chheang is still working in the field in a new mission led jointly by the Cambodian government and WHO, together with its partners, to contain artemisinin-resistant malaria parasites which have emerged in the areas along the Cambodian-Thai border.

Looking back to more than half a century ago, he said things have changed a lot.

“Back then, it was all forests and we couldn’t see the mountains. Wild animals were everywhere,” Mr. Chheang said, pointing at deforested mountains in the distance.

But, it was not only the landscape that was different.  Mr. Chheang said they also had far less advanced facilities to do the work.

He said that there was no telephone in the district and that people had to go to the post office to send mails via telegraphs.

“Now, people are much more sophisticated; they have computers; they use emails,” he said, adding: “Now, we have a large team that can cover all high-risk areas.”

After he retired from the government’s Malaria Control Centre 15 years ago, Mr. Chheang was hired by WHO to help with malaria containment work in the fields.

With almost continuous work to fight malaria for more than half a century, Mr. Chheang said he still enjoys doing his job.

“I am happy with the work; I am happy in the village,” he said recently, with a smile before gesturing at a mother and daughter to go for blood screening for malaria in Pailin’s O Ro’El village.


Written by malariacontainment

September 10, 2010 at 10:07 am

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