Worries over health initiative

Speakers present at the final meeting on a health surveillance and laboratory network yesterday in Phnom Penh.
Speakers present at the final meeting on a health surveillance and laboratory network yesterday in Phnom Penh. Facebook

As the European Union-funded Lacanet project met for the last time yesterday, relevant stakeholders expressed satisfaction with the network’s collaborative approach to combating wildlife-borne disease, while also expressing trepidation over the sector’s independent future.

EU Ambassador George Edgar opened the proceedings, praising Lacanet’s philosophy of combating the spread of disease by taking a holistic approach to human, animal and environmental health. However, the EU’s four-year funding period for the project, which also included efforts in Laos, runs out at the end of this year.

While much of the four-year process included building connections and technical training meant to allow the work to continue independently, there was clear apprehension on how the network would function in the future.

Paul Horwood, of the Pasteur Institute, said Southeast Asia is a “hotspot for emerging infectious diseases”.

Horwood said Lacanet was a success in creating survey systems and training members of the environmental community to collect, recognise and report data from the intersection of animal and human health.

For instance, one Lacanet project revealed seeming links between deforestation and exposure to zoonotic diseases – those passed from animals to humans.

For the study, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) sent field teams to take blood samples of Cambodians living in two unofficial villages in the Keo Seima protected area.

“We picked two villages where we know rapid land change is occurring,” Horwood said, explaining that the villages were set up specifically for logging.

In both towns, field teams found much higher rates of leptospira, rickettsia typhi, and other animal-borne diseases.

“They’re going into forest areas, probably coming into contact with animals they normally don’t come into contact with . . . From what we’ve seen there certainly is a very high level of exposure,” Horwood said.

Lacanet worked with partners like the Ministry of Environment, the Forestry Administration, WCS and other conservation NGOs.

Mathieu Pruvot, of WCS, said before the project there was “no organised system” to collect and report data on zoonotic diseases, and that “relevant field actors were unaware and disconnected”.

Pruvot said there was also a “lack of clarity” on the roles of different ministries and departments.

While Pruvot said he believed progress has been made, he said there is more to do to “ensure that this network is sustainable”. Pruvot said the network created by Lacanet is “readily transferable to government leadership”, but noted it would “require greater uptake by the government staff”.

On the sidelines of yesterday’s meeting, Horwood said stakeholders are working with a group of donors, each committing to separate sectors, to make up for the loss of EU funds.

Horwood would not name the potential donors until the deals were finalised, but maintained future funding is “looking quite promising”.