Unsung No More, Cambodia’s Malaria Hero

The country’s first entomologist embarked on a remarkable seven decade journey to protect his country from malaria, even maintaining his mission during the horror of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Yeang Chheang speaking with USAID.

First published April 23, 2024 by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

During his seven decades on the front lines of Cambodia’s fight against malaria, Yeang Chheang, a soft-spoken man with wire-rimmed glasses and a razor-sharp memory, has seen it all.

Yeang Chheang, 86, at his home in Phnom Penh.

In 1954, at age 17, Chheang began training as a medical entomologist—his country’s first. During the deadly Khmer Rouge regime in the mid-1970s, he saved countless lives by dispensing malaria medication from his pockets. In the decades after the war, he helped rebuild the country’s shattered malaria control program from scratch.

Today, as Cambodia approaches its national goal of eliminating malaria, 86-year-old Chheang is finally getting the recognition he deserves: In December, he received the “Unsung Hero” award during the Reaching the Last Mile Forum at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai.

A life of unwavering service to preventing illness and saving lives is an exceptional career worthy of recognition in and of itself,” Dr. David Walton, the U.S. Global Malaria Coordinator, wrote in a letter to Chheang. “To do so through the terror and suffering of the Khmer Rouge regime and to rebuild in its wake is truly heroic.”

Blood examination for malaria parasites diagnosis at the Malaria Training Center in Praputhabat district, Sarak Bori province, Thailand, in 1991. Mr. Chheang is on the right./Photo courtesy of Yeang Chheang

For decades, malaria has ranked as one of the most common causes of illness and death in Cambodia. Over the past six years, however, not a single malaria death has been recorded, and the dream of eliminating malaria by 2025 is within Cambodia’s reach. 

No one person or program can take full credit for the turnaround. But together, the Cambodian government; the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), led by USAID and co-implemented with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria have accomplished a great deal. Chheang helped lead control efforts from the very beginning.

Since childhood, Chheang has been fascinated with insects. But it wasn’t until age 17, when a French entomologist at his university took him under his wing and trained him in vector control that Chheang decided on a career path.

Chheang helped initiate the first malaria eradication pilot project in the Snuol District of Cambodia in the 1960s, and had risen to be the chief of the malaria program technical bureau when the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975.

Like most Cambodians, Chheang experienced horrific loss under the Khmer Rouge. His three brothers, sister, and mother were murdered. His wife and their 10-month-old son starved to death in a labor camp. Chheang evacuated by foot to the Preah Net Preah District, but before leaving Phnom Penh, he secretly stashed packets of antimalarial pills in his pockets.

Chheang tried to keep his pharmacy a secret, fearing retribution from the Khmer Rouge soldiers. As more prisoners were cured of malaria, however, the soldiers took notice and started to demand treatment for themselves. One day, a top regional military leader who had fallen sick sent for Chheang.

“I was so scared and thought if anything went wrong, I would be killed right there in front of everyone,” he says. Instead, the commander was cured, and Chheang gained respect. “After this, they allowed me to move freely from home to home to treat sick people.”

While Chheang saved lives, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated two million people, including medical doctors and other health personnel.

I survived the Khmer Rouge because of those malaria tablets. They were my blessing,” he says.

After the war, Chheang was one of just a handful of malaria workers in the entire country that could help restore the national malaria control program from the ground up—with no budget or staff. This effort included securing funding from the World Health Organization to re-establish the National Malaria Control Program. One of his biggest accomplishments in the early 1980s, Chheang says, was organizing a training for 68 participants from across Cambodia to test for and treat malaria. By the 1990s, he was deputy director of the National Program.

Chheang spent many years working alongside USAID- and PMI-supported projects, including the Malaria Control in Cambodia project in western Cambodia. In Pailin Province—a former Khmer Rouge stronghold and well-known epicenter of drug resistance— he often led teams on foot for days or weeks through villages still riddled with land mines. 

In those days, Chheang frequently encountered former Khmer Rouge fighters in the area in need of assistance. Chheang says he treated everyone, regardless of their past, with the same compassion and respect.

Chheang retired in 2016, but his contributions to the elimination of malaria in Cambodia won’t soon be forgotten. 

“Your success is an inspiration to me, my colleagues at the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative, and all of the malaria community,” Dr. Walton wrote in his letter to Mr. Chheang. “It is my greatest hope that we can achieve a world free of malaria through the same hard work, dedication, and perseverance.”

For Chheang, a malaria-free world is inseparable from our shared humanity: “If we don’t help people with malaria, we cease to be human,” he says. 

Mr. Chheang and his family.

About PMI: 

The U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) has supported Cambodia’s National Center for Parasitology, Entomology, and Malaria Control (CNM) objectives since 2013 with an overall investment of $87 million. Cambodia is on track to become the first bilaterally-supported PMI partner country to eliminate malaria.

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