As the death toll of ethnic Phnong villagers in Kratie’s Chetborey district rose to at least 13, with over a hundred more in hospital, authorities called for a halt to all production of rice wine and consumption of water from the Prek Te river.
The ban came after the Ministry of Health said that rice wine samples tested came back with high levels of methanol, a form of alcohol resulting from improper distillation that can result in dizziness, nausea, vomiting abdominal pain, blindness, kidney damage and at high enough levels of exposure brain damage and death. Initially only tainted river water was identified as a possible cause of the deaths. Officials are still waiting for conclusive test results of water samples from the Prek Te river, which was also believed to be behind the deaths.
“At the moment, the Ministry of Health discovered high methanol levels in the rice wine . . . [and] we have the prevention [measure] of banning people from using and drinking the water flowing from Prek Te stream because we suspect that it is contaminated with poisonous substances,” said District Governor Hang Chandy. The governor said the ban was necessary to curb the already high number of deaths which on Monday afternoon stood at 13, according to Kantuot Commune Police Chief Phun Phea.
On Sunday officials said that the first death occurred on Thursday but on Friday, after funeral celebrations at which rice wine was consumed and animals were sacrificed to ward off evil from their villages, more villagers died and people began to fall ill. On Monday the Ministry of Health statement put the total number of hospitalised at 149, up from 137 late on Sunday when the death toll stood at 10.
Chandy said authorities were distributing clean water to victims to use for drinking and cooking.
Victims who died were all between the ages of 24 and 73, according to the ministry’s statement. At least 12 patients were in serious condition and receiving treatment at Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh, experiencing severe symptoms of high levels of methanol exposure.
Ministry spokesman Ly Sovann did not disclose the methanol concentration in the samples when asked by reporters.
Sar Mala, director of the Kantuot health centre, said his facility began to see patients with similar symptoms starting April 26, nearly three weeks before this latest spate of deaths, but the number of people becoming ill doubled last week. Mala said according to his count, the number of deaths is much higher and it could be up to 17, though he hasn’t informed the Ministry of Health of the additional deaths, pending the water sample results.
Additional reporting by Yesenia Amaro