Fact check: Post wrong to link vaccinations to a COVID-19 spike in Cambodia

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The claim: Cambodia did not have a COVID-19 outbreak until vaccines arrived

Vaccine opponents are looking to Cambodia to falsely assert that vaccines may actually make COVID-19 more dangerous.

"Cambodia is one of the most vaccinated countries in the world: 81.3% of its population has received at least one dose of the vaccine," reads an Oct. 6 Facebook post. "And there are now more COVID-19 'cases' in Cambodia than ever before. According to official government data, before the advent of vaccines against Covid, there were no problems with morbidity in the country."

The post hasn't accumulated many shares, but similar claims have circulated on Instagram, messaging apps like Telegram and blogs like Before It's News. Some of the posts compare a graph of Cambodia’s daily COVID-19 case count with one of the vaccination rate.

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It’s true that Cambodia didn't experience more than 400 cases or a COVID death until early 2021, roughly when the vaccine arrived. But there is no correlation between increased vaccination and increased cases, experts say.

USA TODAY reached out to the Facebook user who shared the claim for comment.

A Buddhist monk receives the Sinovac COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at a health center in Phnom Penh on August 29, 2021, as Cambodia began vaccinating adolescents between the ages of 12 to 17.
A Buddhist monk receives the Sinovac COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at a health center in Phnom Penh on August 29, 2021, as Cambodia began vaccinating adolescents between the ages of 12 to 17.

Cambodian outbreak was unrelated to its vaccine

Since the start of the global pandemic, Cambodia has fared remarkably well compared to other countries. Reuters' world COVID-19 tracker shows Cambodia didn’t experience a major outbreak until late February, which ultimately led to a spike that officials are still working to quell. The country’s first COVID-19-related death didn’t occur until March 11.

According to the Brookings Institute, many attributed the outbreak to four Chinese nationals who broke quarantine on Feb. 20.

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As of Oct. 5, the day before this post, Cambodian officials had reported 113,475 infections and 2,406 deaths. Cambodia reported its first community transmission in December 2020.

In May 2020, experts told Voice of America that Cambodia’s comparably positive pandemic outcomes were likely caused by a combination of lucky factors. Despite the government’s poor public health policy at the beginning of the pandemic, experts said Cambodia’s COVID-19 counts benefited from factors including:

  • Systematic case undercounting

  • International aid

  • Effective safety measures taken by neighboring countries

  • Cultural practices like wearing masks and not shaking hands

Cambodia’s World Health Organization representative, Dr. Ailan Li, attributed the country’s low counts to its relatively small and young population.

An official in personal protective equipment (PPE) manages the crowd as people line up to receive China's Sinopharm Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on May 31, 2021, as part of the government's campaign to halt the rising number of cases of the virus.
An official in personal protective equipment (PPE) manages the crowd as people line up to receive China's Sinopharm Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on May 31, 2021, as part of the government's campaign to halt the rising number of cases of the virus.

Vaccines protect against COVID-19 – they don’t cause it

Cambodia has administered vaccines that are proven to decrease serious COVID-19 infections to most of its population.

The country has been administering the Sinovac, Sinopharm and AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines. Each vaccine has proven to decrease recipients’ vulnerability to COVID-19.

Cambodia began its vaccination campaign in early February, starting with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s three sons. In the months since, the country continued to vaccinate its population. According to Reuters, 81% of Cambodians had received at least one vaccine dose as of Oct. 5.

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On Oct. 2, the Cambodian Health Ministry recorded the lowest daily figure of new COVID-19 cases since mid-April. Officials attributed the case decline to the nation's increasing vaccination rate.

Our rating: Missing context

Based on our research, we rate the claim that Cambodia did not have a COVID-19 outbreak until vaccines arrived MISSING CONTEXT, because it is misleading without additional information. The country did experience its largest outbreak at roughly the same time its vaccination campaign began, but vaccines did not cause the outbreak. Approved COVID-19 vaccines have been clinically proven to decrease recipients’ risk of contracting COVID-19, experiencing serious symptoms and death. Cambodian health officials have attributed recent case count improvements to the country’s high vaccination rate.

Our fact-check sources:

Contributing: Daniel Funke

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Vaccinations did not cause a COVID-19 spike in Cambodia

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