Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Diabetes and Cambodian witch doctors

Chhun Hy, the young man who works with me at the Bloom shop recently took a week off. His parent came all the way from Kampong Cham province, about a 4 hour bus ride, to see a witch doctor here. His father has diabetes and despite seeing doctors in Phnom Penh is not getting better.

Chhun Hy spent in total USD60 for this trip for his parents. They paid 30,000 riels per person for a return shared taxi from Kampong Cham to Siem Reap. Their guesthouse was USD6 a night and there were also meals. The actual witch doctor fee was only 5000 riels (USD1.25).

For the 5000 riels, Chhun Hy's father was burned in four places with an incense - 3 times in the back and one time on his leg. I have no idea what is going on in Chhun Hy's mind as we have told him enough about witch doctors and superstitions and he himself has agreed with us on some of these matters. In fact, I just showed him this article in today's Telegraph newspaper. In China, a woman boiled a man's head to cure her daughter's psychiatric problems. I told him this is what happens when you don't use your brain and just listen to rubbish.

But I am sure he was just being the filial son to desperate parents who heard about this witch doctor. The man is in his 70s and lives in a big house. Chhun Hy's father was told to return to see the witch doctor once a week--indefinitely, until he gets better. Chhun Hy says about 200 people see him everyday. I worked it out for Chhun Hy: 5000riels x 200 = 10,000,000. 10 million riels, or USD250, a day. Which works out to USD7,500 a month. Nice work if you can get it.

You can imagine how annoyed I am to learn about this. Chhun Hy keeps saying in Cambodia you need money to get better. He says the medicine given by the Phnom Penh doctor is not good because it is cheap. I told him that is not necessarily the case. It does not mean cheap medicine is rubbish and expensive medicine is good. "Tell me the name of the medication." But he does not know.

So I googled and found that in February 2007, the World Diabetes Foundation inaugurated two diabetes clinics in Cambodia. The site says this is because "a surprisingly high number of the adult population has diabetes although the Cambodians are not obese by international standards".
"The prevalence of diabetes in Cambodia is today surprisingly high and the factors ultimately leading to a diabetes epidemic are present. A recent epidemiological study published in The Lancet in 2005, estimates that a total of 255,000 people live with diabetes in Cambodia. About two-thirds of all cases of diabetes were undiagnosed before the survey."

"Economic restructuring, globalisation and the fast growing tourist industry leaves a trail of motorisation and changing food habits in the population as can be seen in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. On top of the previous hunger and deprivation period ending in the 1980’s, this extreme change in lifestyle may play an important role in the development of an epidemic of chronic diseases, including diabetes."
The symptoms include: frequent trips to the toilet, unquenchable thirst, lose weight without trying, weakness and fatigue, tingling or numbness in your hands, legs or feet. This is what Chhun Hy reports his father has.

Anyway, the two centres are in Kampong Thom and Battambang. Kampong Thom is closer to Kampong Cham so that is the one I tried to find. I had to email the contacts listed to get the phone number and address as I could not find it online. I hope the representatives I emailed from the World Diabetes Foundation will respond, so we can get Chhun Hy's father proper treatment.

Chhun Hy seems pessimistic. He keeps saying you need money to be saved in this country. He told me about newspaper articles reporting how patients are routinely turned away by doctors because they have no money. One pregnant woman was turned away because she could not pay the USD10-USD20 medical fee to have her baby delivered. She died and her husband told his story to the papers.

Chhun Hy says, "My country very very bad. The doctors, the teachers- the same. If you have no money, the teachers will not teach you and the doctors will not help you."

I asked, "I thought Cambodians are Buddhist. Aren't you supposed to help people?" He replied, "Before, yes. Now they only want money."

Cambodians are so used to seeing people die, they have a different perspective. They are resigned at worse, sanguine at best. Chhun Hy says many of his neighbours in Kampong Cham have the same problem as his father and he thinks his father will be dead in 4-5 years, because that is how long his neighbours with the disease lasted. His father is only 45.

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