Cambodia struggles with Alpha variant as Delta sweeps across Southeast Asia
- Cambodia recorded fewer than 500 cases and zero Covid-related deaths last year, but an Alpha outbreak has pushed its caseload to around 73,000
- As the country ramps up its vaccination effort, the highly infectious Delta variant is also a cause for concern
But the 46-year-old former boxer-turned-coach, who also has heart disease, got better after about a week of treatment. “He’s not feeling sick any more,” Somaly said. “Doctors told me without a vaccine, his condition could be even worse.”
But Cambodia continues to struggle with several hundred new cases daily, prompting authorities to say they will also inoculate children from the ages of 12 to 17.
While Cambodia has had fewer than 500 infections and zero coronavirus-related deaths since the start of the pandemic, an outbreak of Alpha variant cases erupted just as the country embarked on its immunisation drive, leading its caseload to shoot up to around 73,000, with more than 1,300 deaths in a matter of five months.
Dr Michael C. Thigpen, of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Cambodia, said the outbreak was caused by a breach in quarantine procedures that was recognised only after “hundreds had been infected and travelled around the capital and to multiple provinces”.
The pro-government Khmer Times newspaper in April said the wave of Alpha cases in February came after four Chinese nationals allegedly bribed Cambodian security guards to leave hotel quarantine before the 14-day period ended.
At least two of the four women, who had arrived from Dubai, visited a crowded nightclub in Phnom Penh while infected with the Alpha variant, sparking a superspreader event.
Being more transmissible, the Alpha variant travelled faster than “Cambodia’s whole government response efforts could kick in”, Thigpen said.
Authorities imposed a weeks-long hard lockdown that ended in May, tightened punishments for those violating social distancing rules and travel restrictions, and sped up vaccinations. The country has also expanded its testing capacity, with 10 current active labs that can test more than 10,000 people daily.
On top of this, Cambodia has the added worry of the fast-spreading Delta variant that has wreaked havoc in the region and elsewhere.
There have been reports of vaccinated individuals around the world catching the Delta infection, although having been inoculated, they do not fall seriously ill.
The global spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of Covid-19
Thigpen of the CDC said the Cambodian government was using continuous testing and quarantine to limit the spread of Delta infections.
But Dr Ailan Li, the WHO representative in Cambodia, said she feared the Delta variant would soon break loose.
“In many countries, the Delta variant has replaced other variants. We need to anticipate such scenarios in the future,” she said. “It is only a matter of time before the variant is introduced in Cambodia. Delta can spread more quickly and is linked to increases in cases, which also means more hospitalisations.”
Officials are urging people to adhere to Covid-19 rules, including wearing masks and not meeting in large groups or touching each other’s hands, even if they are vaccinated.
Health experts keep advising the public to wear masks, wash hands and socially distance, and to avoid crowds, enclosed spaces and touching each other when they meet. But health ministry spokeswoman Dr Or Vandine said people were not following the rules and this had sparked community transmission.
“I would like to appeal for the general public to wake up,” she said. “If they are complacent, a public health disaster will occur.”
Li of the WHO said Cambodia also had to be watchful for hidden infections as not everyone infected with the virus would develop symptoms.
“In Cambodia, numbers of daily confirmed Covid-19 cases and deaths remain significantly high and they indicate that the virus is not yet suppressed and community transmission is ongoing,” Li said.
Additional reporting by Reuters