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Dengue Deaths Sweeping Cambodia Highlight Healthcare Failures

Saing Ratha lies semi-conscious, her thin body shaking with fever as her mother tries desperately to cool her by placing blocks of ice under her arms.

Her 10-year-old bother Saing Sokun lies curled around a block of ice next to her in this spartan rural clinic.

Both have been struck down by dengue fever that has killed almost as many children in the first six months of this year as during the whole of 2006 in an outbreak that is expected to worsen with an early monsoon.

"In my village every house has been afflicted by dengue -- in some homes all the children are sick," says the children's mother, Chhiv Thy, as she wipes down the 13-year-old girl's body with wet towels.

For five days they have lain on crude wooden beds in a small alcove off one of the clinic's wings. Saline drips are tied to metal posts and the windowsill next to their cots is piled high with cooking pots and dirty plates.

Chhiv Thy says she has not worked since bringing her children to hospital. The medical care is free, and good, but the beds cost 30,000 riels (7.50 US dollars) each.

Since January some 7,655 Cambodian children under the age of 15 have been hospitalised with dengue, with 109 of them succumbing to the mosquito born illness, which punishes its victims with fever, vomiting and crippling muscle pain.

The most serious cases result in heavy bleeding as blood vessels disintegrate, and can quickly kill children.

Compared to last year's total of 6,149 cases and 158 deaths, "this year is much worse," said Ngan Chantha, director in the health ministry's dengue programme.

Doctor Un Sam Ath gestures up and down the bare hallways of the Krouch Chhmar clinic, saying that only a few days before they had been crowded end-to-end with beds and sick children.

Since May Krouch Chhmar referral hospital has received 20 dengue cases.

"Much more than 2006
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