Southeast Asian country highly vaccinated, despite constraints and challenges

Images from Sonja Kill Memorial Hospital, SKMH 

Cambodia, despite numerous constraints and challenges, has managed to vaccinate over 96% of the population 18 years and older.  How did they do this?  With leadership, collaboration, good clear communication and education.  

The Royal Government of Cambodia, Ministry of Health, the provincial health departments, and the village heads from small communities all joined together to ensure a successful national vaccination campaign.  We asked our partners at Sonja Kill Memorial Hospital (SKMH) and Angkor Hospital for Children (AHC), and Sihanouk Hospital Center of HOPE (SHCH), how Cambodia has accomplished such a high vaccination rate. 

Dr. Thona Sar, Medical Chief of Staff and Head of the Pediatrics Department as well as head of the vaccination team at SKMH, said that the vaccination rollout started in February 2021 in the capital, Phnom Penh. High-ranking national and provincial government officials and their children were the first to be vaccinated, followed by front-line medical specialists and journalists.  In April, when cases started to rise, people living in high-risk areas started receiving vaccinations.  

Designated centers were set up for the population to receive vaccines at hospitals, clinics, and even at pagodas.  Professionals were not sent out to the communities to administer vaccines, but, rather, the village leader brought people from their communities to the vaccination centers. The Ministry of Health also directed vaccination centers be moved closer to communities so that it was easier for people living in remote and rural areas to get their shots. 

Educating the local population about vaccinations was challenging, but, together, the government and nonprofits emphasized their importance through various channels. The prime minister, for example, recorded COVID campaign messages for broadcast on national television.  Government vehicles with loudspeakers were pressed into action and brought information about the importance of the vaccinations to communities.  

Ranjani Poobalan, physiotherapist at SKMH, said cell phone pre-recorded messages in Khmer provided basic information on the pandemic as well as vaccine locations.  Social media were also used as a communications tool to convey the message that vaccines were mandatory for everyone, with the exception of those with preexisting conditions and pregnant women, who would be vaccinated after giving birth. 

Ms. Poobalan shared her insights on the vaccination rollout. “When I think of the whole vaccination campaign, as a foreigner living in Cambodia, I feel so grateful and glad that I live here. The vaccines were provided free of cost to everyone, irrespective of their nationality, and I find that commendable.” 

The government’s COVID Do’s and Don’ts Campaign 

Vibol Duong, Director of Education at the Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap, shared his opinion about the country’s vaccination rate. “Fortunately, COVID has not been politicized here at all. There was some vaccine hesitancy and fear at the beginning, which I think was due to it being new and unknown.  I think Cambodia took it seriously early. They used their public health workers and the army well, to facilitate the vaccine drives, quarantine, etc. It was simple to understand and people followed recommendations.  Once they got vaccines, they were very efficient at getting them out. We were fortunate to have donated vaccines from China, Japan, UK, COVAX etc.   They believed the best vaccine was the one they could get.” 

Images from Vibol Duong, Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap 

Dr. Kruy Lim, Chief Medical Officer at Sihanouk Hospital Center of HOPE (SHCH) in Phnom Penh, shared her thoughts on the successful vaccination campaign. She noted that the Cambodian government and Ministry of Health put a lot of effort into controlling the pandemic, with a 24/7 COVID response team. She said there is a perception that resource-scarce countries have a higher mortality rate, even if good medical health care is available. However, since Cambodia lacks access to good equipment and medication, free vaccinations have always been considered an important tool. Cambodians know this and this awareness contributed to the country’s successful vaccination campaign.     

Thank you to our partners in Cambodia for sharing their experiences with the vaccine campaign.  One of the enduring lessons of this pandemic is that we all have much to learn from each other. 


Articles of interest: 

For an analysis of Cambodia’s Vaccinate Drive Cambodia News in English: LINK 

United Nations Report: