Mystery of Cambodian Illness That Killed 64 Children Solved

These past few months, anxious parents have been showing up at hospitals in Cambodia with their young children cradled in their arms. These children, often younger than three, came to the hospital with an illness that medical professionals could not pinpoint.

Most of the cases occurred in the southern part of the country and most children were rushed to Kantha Bopha hospital in the capital city. 66 cases were reported over the last three or four months, with only two children surviving the illness, CNN reports.

Symptoms included dehydration, fever, headaches and intestinal discomfort. Their condition got steadily worse at an alarming rate during their time in the hospital. Most children died within about 48 hours of being admitted to the hospital. The last hours of discomfort included the almost complete destruction of the lungs.

Now doctors have most likely solved the mystery illness and what caused such a sudden rush of cases in a short period of time. The illness was caused by a combination of pathogens along with the onrush of “disease-causing mirco-organisms.”

A virulent form of hand, foot and mouth disease, also known as EV-71, often contracted after contact with bodily fluids or feces, was the initial cause of most of the childrens’ illness. Dengue fever and bacterial meningitis were also linked to the illnesses. Health officials were not aware that EV-71 was a problematic virus in Cambodia, MSNBC reports.

These children’s symptoms were only worsened when health care officials administered steroids to ameliorate their condition. These pathogens only weakened the immune systems of the children. Health officials cannot be completely certain the steroids worsened the cases, but the numbers show that all of the children that died from the hand, foot and mouth disease were on steroids.

EV-71 does not always cause such drastic symptoms, often only causing cold-like symptoms or external sores. The fact that the children were dying so quickly because of EV-71 made no sense to researchers who finally made the connection between steroid use and the quick deterioration of the children’s health.

A CNN report points out that weather and drainage issues make disease control difficult in Cambodia:

The rainy season in Cambodia, which lasts from May to October, is a key problem in trying to control diseases like dengue. Because of a lack of indoor plumbing in many homes, people collect rainwater in vats, creating potential breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

The investigation into the epidemic will continue as researchers refine their results and rule out any other causes of such a virulent and tragic illness.

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Photo Credit: U.S. Navy


Heather Marvin
Heather Marvin5 years ago

So many problems associated with dirty water in poor countries. What a shame they used steroids as the children may have recovered without it. I wonder if they used antibiotics which they probably would have used in Western Countries.

Despina Vekris
Despina Vekris5 years ago

So Sad

Gloria picchetti
Gloria p5 years ago

Six months of rain makes sanitation hard to control. Soap & bleach are better than sterorids.

Emily Drew
Emily Drew5 years ago

This is so sad, but happy that it was finally figured out.

Shailja M.
Shailja M5 years ago

be wary of steroids...
many advantages, many disadvantages
everything in moderation, when needed

Christine Stewart
Christine S5 years ago

I am glad this syndrome was figured out! Steroids have their place to reduce inflammation, but not when there's an infection- and of course, that was the hard part- they didn't know about the virus...

Mandi A.
Amanda A5 years ago

Sad indeed. Thank you.

ii q.
g d c5 years ago


NO ANY FW to me Rumbak
ANA MARIJA R5 years ago

sad... Martha C. i agree with you...

Nancy B.
Nancy B5 years ago

a tragedy