In the small village of Phnom Dambang near the Thai border, locals know that early detection and treatment is crucial to containing the virulent strain of the mosquito-borne disease that is blighting the region.
“The malaria here... can kill people in a short period of time if we don’t have the right treatment,” said Long Vuthy, whose home doubles as a walk-in clinic. The village is dotted with bright yellow signs emblazoned with pictures of mosquitoes, warning that the disease is prevalent in the area.
Vuthy, 41, who is also the chief of the village in Pailin province – considered to be at the epicentre of drug-resistant malaria in Cambodia – is one of more than 3,000 volunteer malaria workers in the country.
They diagnose the disease with a quick blood test and provide treatment, free of charge, in remote parts of the impoverished nation.
Under a new pilot project, he is now also using a dedicated text message service to report new cases, allowing health experts to monitor and respond to patients’ needs in real time.
“It’s a very good way to help the community,” said Vuthy, who was taught how to use the mobile phone service two months ago by the Malaria Consortium, a non-profit group working with the government and the World Health Organisation (WHO) to eradicate malaria from the country by 2025.
Cambodia has already had success tackling malaria. In 2011, it reported over 108,000 cases, of which 96 were fatal, compared to 102,473 cases and 154 deaths the year before and over 600 deaths in 2000, according to government statistics. But the prevalence of the drug-resistant strain has caused concern.
Malaria resistant to regular forms of treatment was confirmed in western Cambodia eight years ago, likely as a result of patients taking an incorrect or incomplete course of anti-malarial drugs.
To control the spread of this drug-tolerant form, health workers must catch cases early and ensure patients strictly follow the right treatment plan.
The alert system is simple. If Vuthy’s diagnosis test shows a person has malaria, he immediately starts them on medication and composes a message with the patient’s age, sex, location and the type of malaria.
Using a toll-free number, the text is sent instantly to the district health centre, provincial health officials and a national malaria database in the capital Phnom Penh – a process that used to take a month.
The information is also fed into Google Earth to create a map of reported cases and of potential hotspots of resistance.
Together, the data helps officials track each case and make sure the right treatment is available or that more medication is supplied when stocks are running low.
“I think this system is very important in eliminating malaria in Cambodia because it provides information very fast,” said Pengby Ngor from the Malaria Consortium, which developed the database.
“In this way there can be intervention and the patient can get treatment quickly.”