Heat Index – 43°C

That’s 109°F for those of you who are celsius-challenged. And that’s also how hot it felt like it was today. We are in the midst of the hottest season in Cambodia, and I have to say, it’s been brutal. The heat is simply oppressive and discourages movement of any kind really. Even Cambodians have been complaining to me about how hot it is, which is saying something. So, to get through the day you have to find ways to keep moderately cool. Here are a few ways to try and beat the heat:

Take a bucket shower.

Or three or maybe even more; the more the merrier. Take  Continue reading

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 សួស្ដីទាំងអស់គ្នា (hey everyone), time for another update on the work that I am doing these days. Besides PD Hearth, which I told you about in the last post, I have two other major projects I am focusing on for the rest of my service. The first is a project designed by myself and two other volunteers that addresses WASH issues, better known as water, sanitation, and hygiene. The project aims at lowering the incidence of diarrhea throughout a community, a major indicator of the quality of WASH practices in a given place. We currently have a WASH working group developing a curriculum for WASH practices and includes modules on diarrhea prevention and treatment, hand washing, tippy-taps, water treatment, the oral-fecal cycle, and the importance of latrines. PCV Rich and I will use these lessons to train four village health volunteers (VHVs) in WASH practices and community education skills so that they can become community advocates for improvements in water, sanitation, and hygiene.

We are implementing this project at Rich’s site in a village called Samroang in Koh Andet district because the project has a projected timeline of about 7 months from start to finish and my service will end before its completion. My role is to help with the development of this project, facilitate community discussions about current WASH practices and the community’s priorities, conduct the training workshop in Khmer with the VHVs, and provide any other technical support. This is the pilot project for this new approach that we have designed, and if all goes well, all future health volunteers in Cambodia will be able to use our lessons and training manual for implementation in sites all over Cambodia.

As soon as we receive our funding, Rich and I will conduct community needs assessment to get a firm grasp on the current WASH practices in the village that will help us identify the most urgent needs. We will also hold a community meeting consisting of the village chief, prospective VHVs, and other important members of the community, both men and women, to gather their perspectives on current community practices and how to address any identified problems. This meeting will use methods Peace Corps likes to call PACA, Participatory Analysis for Community Action, which in a nutshell refers to involving the community in the process of developing and executing an action plan to address their own issues. The activities included in this method that we will utilize are Community Mapping (to identify resources within the community and certain needs like water access), Seasonal Calendars (to identify the most appropriate times to conduct community education sessions and advocate WASH practices), and Priority Ranking (to compare the needs of the community and prioritize them to tackle the issues most important to the community first).

In June we will hold the training, then it is up to Rich to act as a facilitator as the VHVs hopefully take over the bulk of the project and conduct community health education sessions and monitor the behavior change within the community (for example, who now utilize a water treatment method or has built a tippy-tap in their home). There are two aspects of this project that I find particularly interesting. The first is that we will try to push improved hygiene practices through a community bulletin board, which will be placed in the most frequented place in the village and will display community information related to WASH including the incidence of diarrhea, the number of families with a latrine, etc. As the level of hygiene in the village increases, the negative consequences such as diarrhea should decline and show the community the importance of the improved practices. The second aspect is that we are going to use H2S strips acquired from the NGO Resource Development International (RDI) to test the quality of water throughout the community in order to give concrete evidence of the cleanliness or uncleanliness of their water. They will be able to see very clearly how treating their water is effective and beneficial.

I have visited this village once before with Rich and am very excited to work there. It is different from any other village I have worked in because it is an entirely Muslim community. I have interacted with a few Muslims in Cambodia but the vast majority of Cambodians are Buddhists, and this will give me the opportunity to explore a part of Cambodian culture I have not had the chance to really discover yet. Also, in our initial meeting with the village chief, the people of the community seem very close and interconnected and were extremely friendly, especially the women. More updates will come on this project as it commences.

The second project I am currently working on is Takeo Province’s second annual Camp GLOW. Last year, we held Camp GLOW over two days in the provincial town, helping empower about 60 girls from 4 different towns. This year, we will hold the workshop over three days with double the amount of girls from 5 different towns. The girls from the previous year will attend the workshop again and act as peer leaders during this workshop. We will cover a variety of topics including resume writing, self-esteem, healthy relationships, self-defense, domestic violence, human trafficking, and the environment. For the environment portion of the workshop, we will be headed to the beach in Kep Province where the girls will learn about ways to protect their environment and take part in a community project. Last year, the girls really had a wonderful time. Cambodian students very rarely get opportunities to participate in events like this and work with students from other districts. It gives them a good opportunity to boost their self-confidence, break out of their shells, and become peer leaders. We do indeed have to raise some money to conduct this workshop, so please consider donating to the cause and giving these girls the opportunity to explore themselves and their communities and work toward a better future. You can donate by clicking the link HERE. Thanks!

Cheers mates!


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PD Hearth

Hello again everyone! I know you haven’t heard from me in a while, so I’m going to use my next two posts to explain the two big projects I am currently working on. The first one, which I am going to tell you all about now, is called Positive Deviance/Hearth and is a nutrition project. My other project deals with water and sanitation and will be addressed in my next post.

PD Hearth is a project aimed at combating malnutrition in children under the age of five, which is when children are the most vulnerable to the harmful effects of malnutrition. The general process of the implementation of this project is as follows:

1) Select villages and train Village Health Volunteers in nutrition.

2) Weigh all children under the age of five in the community and identify the malnourished children.

3) Target poor households with healthy kids and poor households with unhealthy kids and conduct interview to learn about their nutrition practices and how these differences account for the health of the children. Any identified healthy practices currently used in the community (and available to anyone regardless of economic status) are promoted through education in the community.

4) Conduct 10-day feeding sessions in order to rehabilitate malnourished kids coupled with health education.

5) Conduct monthly weighings to track the progress of kids and monthly counseling to encourage at-risk families to adopt healthy nutrition practices.

I am currently on Step 5 of this process. It has so far been both a rewarding and frustrating experience.

Some of the good:

My Khmer skills have increased pretty significantly since starting this project. I worked with a third-year volunteer, Saeed, to train a total of eight Village Health Volunteers from two villages in nutrition. Saeed facilitated most of lessons, but I contributed as well and was pleasantly surprised about how well it went. These particular volunteers have had previous nutrition training through the health center, however they said that this training was far more helpful and easy to understand. Good news for any volunteers who plan to carry out this project in the future. This project has also helped me to form really good relationships with many people in the community including village chiefs, market sellers (I finally bought raw meat in Cambodia for the first time due to this project!), and mothers and caretakers. I have also received some very positive feedback from various community members, thanking me for trying to improve the nutrition of kids in the community.

However, it hasn’t all been easy. Some of the bad:

While some mothers have embraced the nutrition activities and seem eager to learn more about improving their child’s health, some mothers are just not interested, too busy, or have some other reason for not participating. This can be incredibly discouraging at times, but I try to remember that even if just a few of the mothers and caretakers get something out of this, then it’s worth it in the end. Another problem involved my Village Health Volunteers. At the start of the project, we discussed and agreed about the roles and responsibilities for both myself and the volunteers. Later, there were bumps in the road regarding the time commitment and per diems for the volunteers. I can tell that some of the volunteers really care about the work we’re doing, but it can still be frustrating to be asked for money for something that’s supposed to be helping the community and was previously agreed upon. It is completely understandable, these volunteers are simply villagers and shouldn’t be expected just to work for free. But my means and money are limited and I can only give them so much. Fortunately, despite these disagreements, the volunteers continue to support the project and are generally doing a great job.

My next steps are to hold a few education sessions with the support of my health center, continue weighings, and conduct counseling. Hopefully, the targeted children, many of whom gained about half a kilogram during feeding sessions, with sustain their weight and continue to grow at a healthy rate. Nutrition education is extremely important in Cambodia because no one seems to really know which foods are healthy, how much of them you should eat, and why. I will be tracking these kids until June and I hope that my work has an impact, but unfortunately I can’t make people change. So, from here on out I’m going to do my best to educate the community about nutrition and just see what happens. In the end that’s really all I can do, and that has been the most important and difficult lesson I have learned from my experience implementing this project.

Here are some pictures from the training that was held in January (I know it’s been a while, my bad.)

Training group.

Training group. Gotta love the Khmer aversion to smiling…

Dtraw Bang Srong village creating their community "nutrition tree" which visually represents malnutrition.

Kampong village creating their community “nutrition tree” which visually represents malnutrition.

Me teaching about complementary feeding.

Me teaching about complementary feeding.

So, that’s the gist of the malnutrition project. Look out for another post headed your way next week about my WASH project.

– Ashley

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Obama Makes Cambodian History

Those of you who know me best know I love politics. Thus far, I have stayed away from this topic in regards to Cambodia, because my job here is to stay away from local politics and try to help my community. Considering recent events, however, I have decided that I want to share with you all a little bit about what goes on in Cambodia in relation to politics and show you some of the things that I have read and some of the things that I have heard from locals. The point of this post is not to offer my view of the events, but just to give you a little insight and allow you to come to your own conclusions.

The event that has precipitated this post is Mr. President Barack Obama’s visit to the country for the ASEAN summit meetings. For Cambodia, this was an historic event. Obama is the first sitting president ever to visit the country. America has had its dealings with Cambodia in the past, most notably when the U.S. carpet bombed much of Cambodia dropping over 2.7 million tons of bombs on the country during the Vietnam War in an attempt to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (There are still unexploded ordnance in the country resulting from these attacks today). But before earlier in the week on Monday, November 19, no president had ever dropped in for a meeting.

A quick aside about the U.S. bombings:

The bombings started under President Johnson and were continued by President Nixon from 1965 to 1973. The civilian casualties sustained by Cambodians at this time may very well have led the people to support the previously unpopular Khmer Rouge, ultimately leading to the Cambodian genocide. This is debatable, though I find it to be a very valid point. I remember hearing sometime last year, that some Cambodians believed that they were being bombed simply because they looked like the Vietnamese, especially if they tended to wear the Vietnamese-style conical hats.

It still surprises me that Cambodians do not seem to harbor ill feeling for Americans as a result of these bombings. Here is a map of the bombings in Cambodia:

You can see how extensive these bombings were. Also, for a little comparison, the Allies in World War II dropped about 2 million tons of bombs, including the atom bombs in Japan, during the entire war. This means that there is a very good chance that Cambodia is the most heavily bombed country in the world.

Anyway, there was a plethora of excitement surrounding Obama’s visit. In my village, nearly everyone I interact with on a day-to-day basis was asking me about Obama, Air Force One, and the beautiful car the President rode in through Phnom Penh. My host family was watching the news coverage on TV when I got home from work. Everyone knew about it and everyone was talking about it. Its funny, I’ve noticed recently that the rest of the world seems to follow American politics. Even around the time of the U.S. election, some of the people I work with would ask me about it and nearly everyone knows the president is Obama. In Phnom Penh, the foreigners I would interact with would bring up the U.S. elections and offer their opinions about it. I say its funny because I think that most Americans don’t really care that much about the politics in other countries. I’d say that many can’t even name the Prime Minister of England (David Cameron) or Australia (Julia Gillard) or even know that the Australian PM is a woman. I’m not passing any judgement, I just find this extremely interesting.

With all the hype surrounding Obama’s visit, a local newspaper, the Phnom Penh Post, featured this article. There are a few important points here: (1) the press was not allowed be present for any important discussions between Obama and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, (2) Obama allegedly pushed Hun Sen to embrace fair elections and confront human-rights issues, and (3) Hun Sen insisted that he holds no political prisoners and human-rights violations in Cambodia have been overstated by the press. Hun Sen’s defensive remarks came just days after the arrest of eight individuals living near Phnom Penh International Airport who painted “S.O.S.” on their rooftops before the arrival of the U.S. President. Other reported human-rights violations that I have taken note of over the past few months include numerous land grabs (many supposedly due to the expansion of logging), the detention of activists protesting land grabs in Phnom Penh as well as other provinces, the murder of a reporter investigating illegal logging in the province of Ratanakiri, and the murder of an activist working for the NGO Natural Resource Protection Group in the province of Koh Kong. With all the bad press, it’s not that difficult to figure out why Hun Sen kept his meeting with Obama as private as possible.

It is fairly clear how the international community views Hun Sen and his dealings with the country, but how do the people themselves feel? Though I am trying not to make this post about the way that I feel about the Cambodian government, I am sure that most of you can guess where I stand, and if you can’t the next sentence does give it away a bit. I once asked a PC staff member (a Cambodian national) why the people tolerate Hun Sen’s behavior. He told me that the people are simply appeased by the current government. After years of civil war and anguish, the people are just happy that there is no more fighting and that they can simply go about their lives without living in fear. This is a sentiment that can be easily seen especially amongst the older population in Cambodia. One of the midwives I work with was just 18 years old at the start of the reign of the Khmer Rouge. She was living in Phnom Penh at the time and was sent to Takeo Province to work in the rice fields, eat watery rice porridge, and live in fear. She was telling me the other day that she likes Hun Sen. When I asked her why she said it was because he helped the Cambodian people during the time of the Khmer Rouge. Before she was hungry, sick, and overworked, but then Hen Sun put an end to all of that. I asked her how the felt about Sam Rainsy, the leading opposition leader who is currently living in exile and facing a prison sentence. She said that she didn’t like him because he never did anything to help her, not like Hen Sun had. It is very easy as an outsider to forget that Hun Sen is a symbol of freedom for many Cambodians, whether this is valid or not, it is a very real and very present feeling.

Wanting to get a different opinion on the matter, I asked my Khmer tutor about Hun Sen. She told me that she didn’t like him so much, but she felt that he was probably going to be the leader of Cambodia for a very long time. She said that from the top down to the bottom, the government was riddled with Cambodian’s People Party (CPP – Hun Sen’s political party) members who fix elections. Even at the village level there are village and commune chiefs who make sure that the CPP is the only viable party. She used to live in a village a few kilometers from me but left because the village chief and the school director were very forceful in promoting the CPP. They told her to shun and avoid contact with the teachers who supported the SRP (Sam Rainsy Party). She said that she liked Sam Rainsy because he is a progressive and has a good vision for the economy. He is popular with the younger, more educated population in Cambodia. She also said that she admires the U.S. and thinks that there should be term limits for the leader of her country, just like in America. The conversation I had with her was extremely interesting and I was actually pretty shocked about how politically aware she was. It is a shame though, because usually she cannot express these opinions and it seems that the circumstances which cause this to be true will not be changing anytime in the near future.

Despite these differing views about Hun Sen’s government, in my experience Obama’s visit to Cambodia was highly anticipated and warmly welcomed by the Cambodian people. The Cambodian people really look up to America, despite America’s dodgy past relations with the country.

I’ll leave you with the New York Times article regarding Obama’s visit. It seems to offer a pretty fair account of what happened and offers points arguing both the pros and cons of his visit. Enjoy.

Happy Thanksgiving friends,


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Holidays Galore

So friends, I am back to Cambodia and back to blogging!  I know you all have missed me terribly, and it’s been a while since my last post so we have a lot to catch up on.  My latest blogging hiatus was due to my return to the great land of AMERICA for a month of fun with family and friends.  I had an amazing time and I miss you all very much.  It was very nice to be home again, if only for short time.

When I returned to Cambo, I went to work on a grant for a malnutrition project I’ll be starting in January.  It has been approved and I am good to go, but more about that later.   Now, I want to talk holidays.

Cambodians love holidays, or at least they must considering the multitude that this country has at a whopping 16 public holidays, 4 of which are three days long, putting the total number of days off at 24. Compare this to the ten days a year an American might get off from work. Since my return, we have had three holidays and one on the way. First was Pchum Ben in mid-October. (The dates for the celebration vary according to the lunar calendar and usually fall from late September to early October). Pchum Ben is also known as “Ancestor’s Day” and is an important Buddhist holiday meant for honoring the spirits of the day.  The celebration last for 15 days, but the last three are considered a public holiday. During this time, it is believed that the guardians of hell release the hungry ghosts (the ghosts of people who died with bad karma and dwell in hell instead of being reincarnated) to receive the offerings from their relatives and the prayers from the monks. Families who honor their dead ancestors are rewarded and blessed with happiness and success, those who do not are cursed and haunted. Throughout the 15-day celebration, family members go to the pagoda each morning with an offering. (This offering is also a meritorious act which is very important in the Buddhist religion). Usually, people go to the pagoda at 4 a.m. to make the offering, because it is believed that the ghosts are not clothed and thus fear the sunlight. I went to the pagoda one morning with my little sister Dalin.  Here is the offering that she made for the occasion:

Offering of fruit and balled-up sticky rice.

My host my was surprised by the fact that I wanted to go to the pagoda 4 a.m. with my sister because usually kids enjoy the experience more. This is due to the throwing of the rice and fruits that occurs after monk chants in the temple.  Everyone walks around the temple about four times, throwing the rice at the altars for the ancestors.

For the last few days of Phcum Ben, I headed to the province of Mondolkiri, a hilly province in the northeast of the country that is very sparsely populated and contains groups of ethnic minorities. The drive up to Mondolkiri offered some diverse scenery unlike most of what I have seen throughout the vastly flat, rice-filled lands of Cambodia. I knew I was in a climatically different area when I saw pine trees. PINE TREES! Can you believe it? Pine trees in a country that I sweat in literally every day; it was amazing. It  foreshadowed the cooler weather in which I could wear a sweatshirt at night and be comfortable.  Mondolkiri is good for trekking, seeing elephants (yes, I did get to see elephants yet again in this country, always brightens my day), visiting waterfalls, and meeting crazy ex-patriots. Here are some pictures from the waterfalls:

On the last day of Pchum Ben, October 15, the former king, King Norodom Sihanouk died in Beijing at 89.  Sihanouk was a symbol of independence and unity for the Khmer people and I have heard him referred to as “the Hero-King” many, many times since his death. He pushed for the independence of Cambodia from France until it was granted on November 9, 1953. He was the effective leader of Cambodia from it’s independence until March 18, 1970 when he was ousted by General Lon Nol, before the Khmer Rouge took over the country. Currently, the acting king is Sihamoni, but you can find pictures of Sihanouk in the country, especially at the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh.
I was in Phnom Penh when his body was flown from Beijing to Cambodia. I sat in the Peace Corps office in the heart of the city until about four o’clock. At that time I left to return to my hotel but found nothing but roadblocks and hoards of people everywhere, all sporting black pants, white, collared shirts, and black ribbons.  They were gathering along Norodom Road to watch the procession from the airport.  There were so many people it was impossible at the time to get to the other side of the city.  I took a pretty inadequate picture of the crowds along the road, but the picture I found online of the gathering is much more effective in showing you the multitude of people who had come to pay their respects.

(The people in orange are monks.)

So, with the kings death, what does that mean for holidays? Well, Sihanouk’s birthday was October 31, and though he was deceased, the holiday was still celebrated here (though in the future I have no idea what will happen) as was Independence Day on November 9.  The next holiday is Water Festival, the three-day celebration to mark the reversed flow of the Tonle Sap River. Each year during Water Festival, boat races take place in the capital and in the provinces. This year I was slated to participate in the boat races in Phnom Penh, but unfortunately, Prime Minister Hun Sen cancelled the races for the second year in a row due to the king’s death in order to honor a three-month mourning period. So, no boat racing for me this year, but I am replacing the festivities with a trip to an island, so no worries =).

Long live the king,


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First Year Reflections

As I sit here trying to write about my thoughts regarding my first year of service, I find it hard to know where to even begin.  My Peace Corps experience thus far has been nothing short of amazing.  I have experienced every emotion from extreme happiness to despair.  I have seen beauty and ruin.  I have forged wonderful, strong relationships with people and have had to say goodbye to people I have come to love.  I have worked to try and improve the lives of others while being in turn changed and affected by these same people.  I have immersed myself in another, wholly different culture from my own and have shared some of my culture and customs.  As cliché as it may sound, this experience has changed me.  It has opened my eyes to this completely different way of living, thinking, and interacting.

Before I left for Cambodia, I thought that, sure, this was probably going to be life changing.  It was going to be hard, but it was going to be extremely fulfilling as well.  At that time, I had no idea how true these thoughts would be.  I will never forget arriving in country for the first time.  Staring out of the airplane window approaching Phnom Penh, I could see rice fields and then the sprawl of the outskirts of the city.  The anticipation was building within me and I was very excited albeit nervous.  Going through the city for the first time, I remember noting the poverty and being dumbfounded; I mean this was the capital city, right, what could the rest of the country look like?  This was just the first view of many that would change drastically in just a short period of time.  A matter of weeks later and the city that had seemed so impoverished to me from the start was now comparable to Disneyland complete with Western food and air conditioning.

The day I moved in with my Khmer family is also imprinted in my mind.  I found myself sitting at my new house with my host dad trying to communicate with him.  Some awkward silences ensued and I just felt so nervous.  How am I going to talk with him and my family?  How do you live with people you can barely even say hello to?  I walked into my room overwhelmed and scared.  But these times would pass, and as the days went by I found myself successfully communicating more and more with them.  I can still remember a two-hour talk I had with my family about myself and my family in America after a couple of months in Cambodia.  I felt so proud after that conversation – I mean I was really getting it.  It seemed impossible at the start that I would be able to have such a conversation with Khmer people, but here I was, sharing about myself and having a conversation about something real in Khmer beyond the simplicity of what I had for breakfast that morning or how I looked in appearance that day.

So, slowly but surely I adjusted to life in Cambodia—taking bucket showers, doing my laundry by hand, sleeping under my mosquito net, commuting to work or the market by bike passing by the various sites that had previously been so foreign to me, eating Khmer food, and a whole host of other things.  I was passing the point where I would wake up in the morning, head to the bathroom, take a deep breath, and tell myself just to get through the day.  Things were becoming more familiar and I was adjusting to this new life.  Now, it seems amazing the types of things I have gotten used to, the things that I don’t even give a second thought to anymore.  Just the other week on a long bus ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, I woke up from a nap to find the passenger next to me vomiting in a plastic bag.  It didn’t even faze me; this was just another day in Cambodia.  The trash burning in peoples’ yards, naked kids running around, poop from various animals in the streets, women biking along the road in sampots, a pack of cows being led down the road, motos that seem to defy the laws of physics with the amount of goods piled on and around their motos stacked sky high—these are all just common sights these days.

Despite the fact that I have become accustomed to this life, being in the Peace Corps presents daily challenges.  This job is by no means easy.  The work that I try to do every day is constantly hindered by cultural and language barriers, and even just day to day living can get to be too much at times.  But you learn to work through it.  You learn patience.  You learn to extend your sense of humor because sometimes you just have to laugh about some of the ridiculous situations you often find yourself in, like getting into a tightly packed toure where people are sitting on countless crates of eggs or empty gas containers.  You learn acceptance.  You learn to pick and choose your battles.  You learn that it’s okay if you don’t understand everything that’s going on.  You learn that even if you fail, there is something to be gained from that failure, and you get up and try again.  You learn to trust yourself and your instincts.  And then you learn that there is still so much to be learned from this experience.

It’s an amazing feeling when I realize that the relationships I’ve built with some of these Cambodians means so much to them and to me.  My host mother has told me repeatedly that she loves me like her own daughter.  One of the midwives that my health center says she looks at me like a granddaughter.  I was honored to be a bridesmaid in a Khmer wedding and was given the chance to experience such an integral part of Cambodian culture.  The girls that I teach from Camp GLOW give me huge smiles and hellos every time that I see them and send me sweet texts when I am away, telling me how much they miss me.  These things pull at my heartstrings and make me proud to be a part of their lives.

I came here to try and make a difference in the lives of some of these people.  But what I have received in return is more than I could have ever asked for.  I’ve had my limits pushed to the brink and pushed back, and because of this I have become a much stronger person and have learned so much about myself along the way.  It hasn’t been easy, and has at times been downright difficult, but it has certainly been an unforgettable experience and I look forward to seeing what my second year of service will have to offer, especially because I have gotten better at working in this country and have a good plan for my work in the next year. One thing I know is this village that has been my home for the past year will forever hold a special place in my heart.

In Peace Corps Cambodia, every day is an adventure worth experiencing.

– Ashley

P.S.  As many of you already know, I will be returning to America for a month long visit and will arrive this Tuesday night.  I go back to Cambodia on October 2, so I will not be posting during this time.  Also, when I get back to site, I have a lot of work to do before October 15 for a malnutrition project that I am currently working on.  So, look for my next post around mid October.  Until then, I hope you are well and I hope to see many of you stateside!

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Dengue Fever

In Cambodia, staying healthy can be a bit of a challenge.  A general lack of proper hygiene and sanitation opens the door for various bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections including a host of diarrheal bugs.  Mosquitoes are capable of transmitting a number of nasty diseases including malaria, dengue, Japanese encephalitis, chickungunia, and filariasis.  And to top it all off, it is difficult to maintain a healthy diet when certain nutrients are scarce and protein intake is low.  For the majority of my service, I had been pretty lucky and hadn’t gotten too sick and even managed to avoid diarrhea more often than most of the other volunteers.  But alas, all good things must come to an end and last month my luck ran out.

I woke up one morning, sick with a low-grade fever that I had had already for three days.  I took some acetaminophen and drank some water, then I realized that I had pain in my eyes.  Looking anywhere but straight triggered the pain and a sharp headache.  This was bad news–eye pain with a fever is a symptom of dengue fever (jom nguu groan cheeum in Khmer).  I called my medical officer and went in for a blood test.  The results came back dengue-positive.  Dengue is transmitted by the tiger mosquito and bites in the daytime from about dawn to dust. (Malaria on the other hand is transmitted by the anopheles mosquito and bites at night.)  Only the symptoms of dengue can be treated, like the fever for example, but otherwise you just have to ride it out.  This year in Cambodia, the number of dengue cases increased 350%.  In the past two months, about 15 volunteers acquired the disease and 2 or 3 others acquired chickungunia (a similar disease transmitted by the same mosquito which can leave you with arthritic pain for up to 6 months.  Dengue was running rampant and I was one of its victims.

The Asian tiger mosquito

One of my Peace Corps friends had dengue at the same time as me, so we got put up in a hotel room to suffer in misery together.  A constant fever was accompanied by muscle and joint pain (dengue is also called break-bone fever for this reason), eye pain, and a loss of appetite.  A few days in, my friend and I made a terrible mistake–after hardly eating anything for a few days we ordered subs to fill the void.  This was something our bodies just could not handle at the time.  My friend proceeded to vomit violently for the rest of the day and I nervously notified our medical officer who came barging in at 8 at night equipped with IVs and other medical supplies.  My friend got hooked up to an IV and a got shot for something I can’t remember and started to feel better.  Little did I know that I would be next.  That night I started vomiting and it quickly turned into episodes of dry heaving.  The next day, I received my IV and shot.  Prior to this experience ,I had only ever had by blood taken once (for my PC medical screening).  All of a sudden I found myself getting stuck with needles left and right so my platelet count could be monitored and had some bruising on my left arm as a result.  Needless to say, this was turning out to be a terrible experience.

As the fever and aches started to subside, I acquired the dengue rash that usually comes toward the end of the illness.  I got the rash on the palms of my hand and from my feet to mid-calves.. This rash was extraordinarily itchy and uncomfortable, making it difficult to get any sleep.  The worst part was that no medications helped to alleviate the itching–pills, shots, creams–nothing helped.  The good news was that after the rash, my platelet count was at an acceptable level and I was dengue free and able to go home after a week and a half of sickness.  The scary part about all of this is that I could potentially get dengue again.  There are four strains of the illness, so I could get bit by a different strain, increasing the chance of getting the hemorrhagic version.

While this was going on, I had to inform my counterparts that I wouldn’t be in work for a while. The common response was, “Oh, but dengue is a child’s disease.”  True, Cambodians normally get dengue as children, which is more dangerous than getting it as an adult.  However, as a Westerner who has never been exposed, it was quite easy for me to acquire the disease as an adult.

Dengue combined with a 5 day sickness two weeks later and a terrible appetite left me 5 kilos (or 11 pounds) thinner.  I felt awful and malnourished but have since regained the weight.  Moral of the story is, don’t forget your mosquito spray (well, at least if you are in dengue-infested parts).

Stay healthy folks!


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