Rabies is still rife in Cambodia. However, the disease was overlooked by many Cambodians, particularly those who are residing in the countryside, until two people died after contracting the illness.
The news that two people died after being infected with rabies went viral and left many Cambodians in a state of shock. It started with a young girl who was bitten by a cat in December 2018, followed by an elderly man who was scratched by a dog in February 2019. Neither of them was admitted to a hospital nor sought professional treatment after being attacked. A thing that the two families had in common along with many others is that they were unaware of this fatal disease. It was too late by the time the families visited the doctors.
Rabies is known as a disease that can be transmitted to humans by saliva through bites or scratches from domestic or wild animals such as dogs, cats or monkeys. The mortality rate is significantly high if the victim remains untreated after contracting it, but rabies can be cured with vaccination injections if it is treated at an early stage.
According to the Institut Pasteur du Cambodge (IPC), a research institute of the Ministry of Health which provides various types of vaccines, rabies remains as a significant public health concern in Cambodia due to the high cost of treatment, the lack of knowledge of pet owners and the limited amount of vaccine coverage. Dogs are known to be the primary transmitter of rabies in Cambodia; the IPC reported that every forth Cambodian owns a dog on average (excluding stray dogs) and approximately 600,000 people are bitten by canines annually.
It is worth noting that the fear following the outbreak of rabies came after the young girl’s family posted a video about their daughter’s symptoms in which the girl was in a very painful state. The video circulated on Facebook, and it caused fear among many Cambodians. As panic rapidly spread, thousands of Cambodians flocked to the IPC to be vaccinated against rabies. In the past years, the government of Cambodia has put much effort to raise awareness about the deadly disease, but the campaign does not seem to have appealed to its citizens.
However, it turned out that the dissemination of the video on social media such as Facebook has been more effective than the government’s project towards raising awareness. The contrast in success is unlikely to surprise anyone since Facebook has taken over the role of conventional media mechanisms in Cambodia due to the emergence of the Internet in recent years. Facebook is noticeably the most robust social media platform in a kingdom with more than 6.8 million users as of 2018. Then again, the main concern was that the demand was higher than the supply and many people were seeking vaccination at the same time although none of the animals above had injured them.
The incident also alarmed the government of Cambodia. Following this sudden rise of people seeking vaccination, the Prime Minister of Cambodia urged people not to be panic and suggested that the vaccine should be prioritised for those who had been bitten by dogs or cats. The prime minister also pointed out that the rabies vaccine is not necessary for everyone.
Additionally, he advised the public to avoid playing with dogs or cats and to vaccinate their pets if necessary. In an effort to solve the problem, another vaccination centre was established in Kampong Cham province, the northern part of the country, aimed at providing vaccination against rabies to the victims. The initiative was a joint collaboration between the IPC and the Provincial Health Department.
Meanwhile, Phnom Penh Animal Welfare Society (PPAWS) also offers free vaccine against rabies to pets, since the outbreak has caused concerns about animal lives as the incident could put them at risk of being abandoned or killed instead of receiving vaccinations.