A summer spent volunteering in Cambodia

In July 2019, Emily Christopher graduated from the University of Manchester with a BSc (Hons) in Pharmacology and had secured a place on the University’s Masters in Public Health programme. However, before starting her postgraduate degree, she took a trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to volunteer on a public health programme. Read all about her trip below…

Angkor Wat.jpg

The economic boom Cambodia has experienced since the end of the Khmer Rouge in 1974, means poverty rates halved between 2004 and 2011. 21% of the population still live on or below the poverty line, and 56% live in vulnerable poverty as development has focused on infrastructure for business and tourism rather than improving conditions for the Cambodian population.

With the majority of high school students failing to graduate and most hospitals unable to properly staff or equip themselves, volunteering within the country has become an industry in itself. Most volunteers choose to work with children, teaching in charity run schools or helping in orphanages; I chose to use my medical knowledge and volunteered on a public health programme with the charity, Projects Abroad.

For just under a month I worked with local doctors, Kimheng and Leakhena, in small communities within Phnom Penh. Each morning we would visit a school with children aged anywhere between 2-16 years old where we led a short presentation on different health topics including head lice, hand hygiene, the food pyramid and dental hygiene, before giving each child a health check. This involved cleaning their ears and hands thoroughly, as well as any cuts or scrapes; cutting their finger and toenails; administering Vitamin C tablets; and checking their teeth for decay, applying an oral paste where necessary. Each class consisted of approximately 40 children, each with a bright smile at the sight of our minivan, often accompanied by chants of ‘hello’ or ‘teacher’, the only English words they knew.

Giving Health Checks at a School on the Silk Islands.jpeg

Following a run around the playground and a traditional Khmer meal for lunch, we moved into communities surrounding the schools for the afternoon. Here we would wait for residents to come out of their homes for a general health check that they may not otherwise be able to access. Adult health checks included blood glucose and blood pressure readings, medical history collection and a general consultation. Most adults were in need of hypertension or diabetes medication, which were given without a prescription but in much lower doses than available in the UK.

Patients were also sent away with dietary supplements, multivitamins and products Westerners take for granted, such as ibuprofen, paracetamol, hydrocortisone cream or cold and flu tablets. On several occasions, health checks for the community were accompanied by short presentations on public health issues that the  groups were particularly at risk of, including osteoporosis and hypertension, as well as general presentations on hand and dental hygiene.

Each Friday, the volunteer groups, led by Kimheng and Leakhena, would come together to discuss the public health presentations given that week and suggest new ideas for delivery and topics in the next week. During my time, adaptations to the presentations included the production of microbe stickers for the children to receive on completion of their health checks, the use of e-Bug colouring pages as a resource for schools and the purchase of food parcels for any community that was particularly at-risk.

Giving a Presentation on Hypertension to the Silk Islands community.jpg

The health challenges faced by Cambodia’s population are similar to those across the developing world, particularly in South-East Asia, and the current state of living for much of the country is less than desirable. With limited employment opportunities and greater concentration on business development than improving the standard of living, the future is limited for much of the population. However, that is not to say that Cambodia is not a beautiful country, filled with kind and loving people; in the light of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and its long-lasting scars, the Cambodian people have made huge strides to develop their country and heal much of the damage done. The people I met during my trip were some of the happiest I have ever met, despite their somewhat dire circumstances, children with blackened teeth bouncing with excitement in their classrooms, women abandoned by the fathers of their children still determined to do the best for their families, and elderly women who lost their children to a genocide still excited for what tomorrow brings.

My time in Cambodia changed me as a person, giving me a new appreciation for my Western privilege and the desire to learn even more about the non-governmental organisations working in developing countries to help people where their governments are unable or unwilling. I returned from Phnom Penh with new friends from all over the globe and a renewed passion for Public Health, I hope that anyone who has the opportunity to volunteer in a developing country does, it’s truly the experience of a lifetime.

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