Unknown illness kills more than 60 Cambodian children, health officials say

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AP Graphics Bank
(CBS News) The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Cambodian government are investigating the cause of a mysterious illness that has killed more than 60 children from different areas around the country.

A joint press release by Cambodia's Ministry of Health and the WHO on Tuesday said that 61 out of 62 children admitted to hospitals have died of the unknown ailment. By Wednesday, Dr. Beat Richner of Kantha Bopha Children's Hospitals -- who alerted the government to the disease -- told Al Jazeera that 64 out of 66 cases had died. All the victims are aged 7 and under, and died with 24 hours of getting to the hospital, typically of complications from pneumonia.

Cambodia mystery illness kills 61 kids

The disease starts as a high fever, followed by respiratory problems and/or swelling in the brain and then the destruction of the child's respiratory system, according to the press release. While the majority of the cases have been found in the southern region of the country, the disease has been recorded in victims from 14 different provinces, an official told the Cambodian national newspaper Phnom Penh Post. No obvious clusters have been found.

"This can be a mixture of a number of known diseases -- virological, bacterial or toxicological -- which have been reported as one syndrome or something new," Dr. Nima Asgari, a team leader of the WHO country office in Cambodia, told CNN.

"While the labs are excluding the various pathogens, we are providing support to [the Ministry of Health] to make sure that an in-depth analysis of cases is done to identify possible causes or exposures which will give us a better picture. The investigation is ongoing," Asgari added.

The WHO said to AFP that there are no reports of staff or neighboring patients getting the disease, meaning that it doesn't appear to be contagious. All the patients were eventually admitted to hospitals in the capital Phnom Penh or in locations in Siem Reap.

Both the recent outbreak of dengue fever and Chikungunya (CHIKV) - a mosquito-borne alphavirus - have been ruled out as being related to the deadly disease, according to the New York Times.

According to the Phnom Penh Post, at the time of Richner's letter to the Ministry of Health, June 20, 47 kids had died. Thirteen days later, an additional 13 deaths had been recorded at Kantha Bopha hospitals.

Richner added that all the children had encephalitis - swelling in the brain - and were hospitalized and treated at private clinics before being sent to Kantha Bopha Children's Hospitals. He voiced his concern that these kids may have received incorrect medication.

"I worry that a wrong treatment and drug intoxication at some private clinics has destroyed the lungs leading to a pneumonia we cannot treat," he said to the Cambodian newspaper.

Neighboring countries have been officially notified through a post on the International Health Regulations event information system. The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh has yet to issue any special warnings or health alerts.

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