Before dawn, the line of parents trying to comfort their sick children stretched around the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.
Dozens of children waited their turn for treatment. It is the normal daily routine here, especially during the rainy season when mosquito-borne illnesses are most prevalent.
But over the past four months doctors inside the busy hospital have been faced with something that is not routine at all; a mysterious syndrome killing children so fast nearly all of the children infected with it die within a day or two of being admitted to the hospital.
Other hospitals in the country also began reporting similar cases — though far fewer than the children’s hospital in the capital, which is the most popular. Since April, doctors at the Kantha Bopha hospital have reported 66 cases of the illness. Of those cases only two children survived, while 64 died.
Most of the children who have contracted the illness have come from south of the country, though health officials cannot find what is known as a cluster — that is a lot of cases coming from one specific area.
“We have no evidence there are particular places where this is more likely to occur. So it is really a different pattern from a normal infectious epidemic where you have a cluster of cases. This does not follow that pattern,” the World Health Organization’s representative in Cambodia, Pieter van Maaren, told CNN.
By June 29, The WHO had been contacted and Cambodian Health officials were scrambling to instruct health providers across the country to spread the message to the masses as quickly as possible.
At the Takeo Provincial Hospital in southwest Cambodia, every bed was taken in the children’s ward. Many of the children were diagnosed with Dengue fever. A few had Encephalitis.
On Sunday, the head of pediatrics was in the hospital surrounded by children hooked up to intravenous drips. A five-year-old howled with stomach pain, while another child was too lethargic to lift his head. Most of the children were feverish and dehydrated.
Dr. Te Vantha darted from one sick child to another trying to make sure they were getting the treatment they needed. Nurses hurried in and out with syringes and medicines. Meanwhile, mother’s stroked their children’s heads, their faces blank from tiredness or wrinkled in worry.
At this time of year, about 50 children per day are brought to the hospital for treatment. Usually their ailments are treatable but in the past four months Dr. Vantha said he has seen two cases that have left him baffled. In both cases the children’s condition deteriorated alarmingly fast.
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