PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Fifteen people have died and at least 78 have been hospitalized in recent weeks after drinking toxic rice wine at a series of funerals in Cambodia in the past five weeks, officials said on Friday.
Rice wine sales were banned in Kompong Chhnang province, about 90 km (55 miles) from the capital, Phnom Penh, after villagers became sick from drinking methanol-tainted wine, said Sorin Tiravuthy, director of the provincial hospital.
The first death was reported on Nov. 3 but villagers continued to consume the same rice wine at a different funeral, Tiravuthy said.
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Rice wine is a staple in Cambodia, where it is consumed at weddings and funerals.
Home-brewed wine has led to fatalities in the past. The drink, which is relatively inexpensive, can be lethal if not mixed properly.
Tiravuthy said he had lost count of the number of people being hospitalized after drinking bad rice wine.
"At health centers, people are continuously coming in. I don't know how many now," Tiravuthy told Reuters.
Cambodia's Health Minister Mam Bunheng said on Friday the tainted wine included above-normal quantities of methanol and urged people to stop consuming improperly made rice wine.
Methanol, the simplest form of alcohol, is closely related to ethanol, the type of alcohol normally found in spirits, beer and wine. Home distillation can concentrate the level of methanol, which is highly toxic.
At least 18 people died in Cambodia's northeastern Kratie province last year after drinking methanol-tainted rice wine.
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Paul Tait)