HONG KONG, China — (DMN/CNN) – The World Health Organization and Cambodian health officials are investigating why at least 61 children in the country have died mysteriously after suffering severe neurological and respiratory complications. Dr. Beat Richner of the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals, who first alerted Cambodia’s health authorities about the unknown disease, said that as of Friday he knew of 64 cases in which only two children have survived. The Cambodian Ministry of Health said that 56 of the deaths were preceded by a common syndrome of fever and respiratory and neurological problems. Seventy-four cases of the disease have been identified, the ministry said.
Countries surrounding Cambodia were informed of a deadly disease that killed dozens of children this week through the International Health Regulations event information system, which provides public health communications. In Hong Kong, a major air hub in the region, health officials responded by alerting doctors to be watchful for patients returning from Cambodia who have respiratory symptoms. Travelers who have been to Cambodia were told to visit their doctors if they developed respiratory symptoms. The unknown illness appears in children, according to the WHO and the Cambodian Ministry of Health.
A majority of the identified cases were in children under 3, the health ministry said. “The investigation is ongoing. We are looking at detailed information from the hospital records and analyzing each and every case. We hope to have a better picture in the coming days,” said Dr. Ly Sovann, a deputy director at the ministry. The children who fell ill first experienced a high fever followed by respiratory problems. Some of them also had neurological symptoms that included convulsions, according to the WHO. Richner said the patients suffered from encephalitis, which is the inflammation of the brain. “They are hospitalized,” he said. “They arrive in our hospital; in the last moments … they die because their lungs are destroyed.”
When asked what he thought caused the deadly illness, he said: “I think our idea is an enterovirus or an intoxication of a drug,” or a combination of both. Richner added that the number of cases affected by the unknown disease is low — 34 cases in June, compared with the 75,000 sick children at Kantha Bopha’s outpatient clinics and 16,000 hospitalized kids. The majority of the cases came from the southern part of the country, but there haven’t been signs of clustering, according to the WHO.
The young patients were brought to hospitals in the capital, Phnom Penh, and the northern tourist hub of Siem Reap — the two biggest cities of Cambodia. The Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap reported one case of the mysterious illness as of Friday, according to an e-mail received by CNN from Dr. Bill Housworth, the hospital’s executive director. “WHO supports the Ministry with the investigation and detailed analysis of each of these cases to find out the cause,” wrote Dr. Pieter Van Maaren, a representative of WHO in Cambodia in an e-mail Friday.
Indianapolis radio station WNOU, RadioNOW 100.9, put it’s morning show producer, Kal, in a car with the windows up on a day when the cities high temperature was forecast at 104 degrees. The idea was to call attention to a serious problem — people who leave children or pets in vehicles. In Texas, we house inmates in prisons, some more resembling pole barns, that are dangerously hot. Kal closed himself in a car with the windows up about 6:45 a.m., with the temperature already more than 80 degrees at the radio station’s parking lot downtown. Equipped with a thermometer and flanked by an EMT, Kal sat as the sun rose and temperatures climbed.
Only 21 of 111 units in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system are fully air conditioned; the rest have some AC but mostly not in the inmates’ quarters. Larry Gene McCollum was serving an 11-month sentence at Hutchins State Jail in Dallas when, following a string of 100-degree days last summer, the 58-year-old suffered a seizure on the night of July 22. According to a lawsuit filed yesterday by attorneys with the Texas Civil Rights Project on behalf of his daughter, McCollum was taken to the hospital where his body temperature was measured at 109.4 degrees Fahrenheit. He fell into a coma and died six days later of what an autopsy concluded was hyperthermia “due to housing in a hot environment without air conditioning.”
TDJC wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit, but spokesman Jason Clark passed along an emailed statement that said the agency “strives to mitigate the impact of temperature extremes” by providing ice and additional water to inmates, restricting outside activity, training employees and inmates to be aware of heat stroke, and allowing fans for all custody levels, among other measures. He also noted that “correctional officers and much of the unit staff work in the same conditions as the offenders.” That may be true, but it’s also true that TDCJ inmates die of hyperthermia at an alarming rate. Scott Medlock, one of the attorneys who filed the McCollum case, said McCollum’s was one of nine heat-related deaths in 2011 alone, and he expects heat played a role in several others.
If this was happening to anybody else, the state Legislature would have seized on the issue long ago, but these are convicted prisoners who have forfeited the luxuries that come with free life. There simply aren’t many lawmakers clamoring to spend taxpayer money to make inmates comfortable. So…back to WNOU’s experiment. “What people don’t realize is just how hot it is inside vehicles,” said Kyle Smelser, co-host of RadioNOW Mornings. “We’re making Kal … be our dog today.” Sweat quickly began rolling as the minutes passed, and Kal said he just couldn’t take any more once the temperature inside got to 103 just a couple of hours later.
Indianapolis’ official temperature had risen to 90 degrees by 9 a.m. “He’s doing a lot better than I thought because he only weighs 135 pounds, and I thought the heat would get to him quicker, but he’s doing well. He’s usually a big baby most of the time,” Smelser said. Though RadioNOW had some fun with the heat, high temperatures in vehicles can quickly become deadly for animals and for people. “Think of (your pet) as a child, because they are also a living creature,” said Rachel Bogle, co-host of RadioNOW Mornings. “They’re pretty defenseless.” If left completely closed on a 100-plus degree day, the temperature inside a vehicle left in the sun can easily exceed 135 degrees. Perhaps Texas State Senator John Whitmire and/or Governor Perry should see how long they can sit in a car on a hot Texas day, or just go hang out at one of the prisons.
WRTV in Indianapolis and WNOU contributed to this report.