Interview with Cambodia's Dr. Sok Touch

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While we were in Phnom Penh to develop the ASEAN+3 FETN activity of a joint surveillance evaluation under the umbrella of field epidemiology training, we were able to sit down and interview Dr. Sok Touch, Director of Communicable Disease Control Department, Ministry of Health, Cambodia. The ASEAN+3 FETN Focal Point graciously spared time to introduce himself and his ideas for ASEAN+3 FETN activities.

What has been your path to the position you currently hold?
I graduated as Medical Doctor in 1985 and then worked in a remote Cambodian province near the border of Laos. I returned to Phnom Penh in 1987 to work in the National Pediatric Hospital. To strengthen public health activities in the hospital as part of my responsibility on Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI), which is a main killer for Cambodian children alongside diarrheal diseases, I was awarded a scholarship and received my MPH degree at the University of New South Wales in Sydney in July 1998. In October of the same year, I joined the Ministry of Health as Chief of the Surveillance Bureau of the Communicable Disease Control Department and was later promoted as Director since April 2000.

For those that are not familiar, can you briefly describe the epidemiology training program in Cambodia?
After the first challenge of SARS in 2003, the Quarantine Bureau from the Preventive Medicine Department was transferred to my Department which primarily has a Surveillance Bureau and a Prevention and Control Bureau. This move has greatly improved the functioning of the Department as further experienced by the subsequent Avian Influenza outbreaks in 2004 and the Pandemic Influenza in 2009.

An epidemiology training program has long been considered by the Ministry as a main strategy for effective disease surveillance and response activities. Since 2000, Provincial Committees for Outbreak Response chaired by the Directors of Provincial Health Departments and spearheaded by the network of Rapid Response Teams (RRTs) at both central and provincial levels were created and continue to play a major role in surveillance and response to outbreak-prone diseases in the country.

The Communicable Disease Control Department works collaboratively with many partners including WHO, US CDC, ASEAN, MBDS, ACMECS, ADB and the World Bank and SAFETYNET. The current Applied Epidemiology Training (AET) program could not take place without the support from WHO, the World Bank, US CDC, ADB, CDC Regional Project, MBDS and SAFETYNET.

(If approved by your government,) how can ASEAN+3 FETN contribute to needs of Cambodia's program?
Communicable diseases recognize no borders and cross-border collaboration is instrumental for timely and effective outbreak investigation and response. Resource mapping and best practices in other countries can be used to fill the gaps identified.

We can all work together through FETN by sharing good practices and curriculums. The (ASEAN+3 FETN) Flooding Teleconference and the newsletter is a good example. Experiences are very valuable and sometimes hard gained. Sharing experiences will undoubtedly save lives. An example is Thailand's experience with electrocution during the time of the 2011 severe flood.

We appreciate to be in FETN. We need to take this partnership from the central to the community level. We need to build capacity from the central level. Also, laboratory capacity is essential in disease surveillance and response.

Has the training program implemented a multi-sectoral approach?
Yes. We work with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) as well as the Department of Drug and Food (DDF). This collaboration reflects also the implementation of the APSED whereby zoonoses as well as food-borne disease control is very challenging.

What issues would you like to see ASEAN+3 FETN address over the next 5 years?
Cambodia highly appreciates the collaborative works of ASEAN+3 FETN with other partners. At this current rate of AET (5 trainees per batch), the country needs additional three batches to cover the minimum of one AET per province as we have twenty-four provinces/municipality. However, in the foreseeable future, our ambition is to have at least two AET trained per province/municipality.

Furthermore, the capacity at Operational District and Health Center levels need to also be built. The prospective support from ASEAN-FETN will be geared in that direction. International trainees from Thailand may provide a good hand through curriculum development and exchange, particularly for new emerging and zoonotic diseases. Together, we should jointly develop new protocols. As we continue to have video conferences, we can visually discuss clinical observations from the field. Good training program should preferably be linked to real outbreaks in real time and in real situation which is fostered by this multi-country networking. FETN should also continue ongoing collaborations with other networks, such as TEPHINET.

  Cambodia's Applied Epidemiology Training (AET) Program

To establish a network of competent and dedicated field epidemiologists at the national, provincial and district level, Cambodia's six-month AET program was established in 2010. The second cohort is currently conducting field work to deliver surveillance reports, surveillance evaluation projects and field investigations. Each of the five trainees has a national field supervisor, all of whom are International Thai FETP alumni, and an international field supervisor, a Cambodian or regionally-based epidemiologist from an international organization. For more information on Cambodia's AET, please click here. Please also enjoy these videos on the first and second cohort prepared by Cambodia's Ministry of Health, WHO, US CDC and SAFETYNET.

Video: First Cohort
Video: Second Cohort