Sarawak gov’t slow to announce cholera outbreak

By Keruah Usit

Sarawak’s government has been criticised for being slow to respond to an outbreak of cholera in the central oil town of Bintulu.

Sources in the Health Ministry have disclosed, on condition of anonymity, that 152 children and adults in Bintulu have been suspected or confirmed to be infected as of Wednesday July 25 morning. Bintulu is home to 214,000 residents.

johor flood 160107 medical doctor attending to childCholera in Bintulu was first documented on July 13, and traced to the regatta, a well-attended watersports carnival, held on the river on July 8 and 9.

On July 22, local English daily The Borneo Post published an article, quoting the state health department, calling on all regatta participants to come forward to be screened for cholera. This announcement was inexplicably followed by silence.

The number of confirmed cases has been rising rapidly over the past two weeks. According to sources, health care workers have been issuing information to the local press in recent days regarding the outbreak, yet nothing has been published since July 22, raising fears of a news blackout.

The number of confirmed cases has been rising rapidly over the past two weeks. According to sources, health care workers have been issuing information to the local press in recent days regarding the outbreak, yet nothing has been published since July 22, raising fears of a news blackout.

“The cholera is now moving by land up to the 32nd mile of the Bintulu-Miri road. Once the holidays start it will travel everywhere, including the peninsula, if no action is taken,” one source explained, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The authorities are reluctant to close the (Bintulu) Ramadan Bazaar despite  evidence of spread, (including) two food handlers, confirmed by swabs,” the source said.

Both Wong Soon Koh, the state minister responsible for public health, and state health director Dr Zulkifli Jantan were unavailable for comment, as they were meeting this afternoon to discuss an imminent press release regarding the outbreak.

When Malaysiakini contacted the state operations room, staff confirmed the outbreak, and promised a press statement would be released soon, but were unable to comment further.

PKR national women’s vice-chief Voon Shiak Ni expressed concern over the lack of news.

“If the figure is rising every day, the minister in charge should issue a public statement right away – the faster you give us the statistics, the faster the public will be aware of the danger. Otherwise (the outbreak) will be more widespread and harder to control,” she said.

Public awareness crucial

Cholera is a water-borne disease, spread by contamination with faeces from infected people. The infection is highly contagious and profuse watery diarrhoea can kill within hours.

medical farmasi facility in malaysia 161204Treatment is with intravenous fluids and antibiotics. The death rate from cholera can be much reduced if treatment is sought early, particularly in vulnerable groups like children and the elderly.

Public awareness and contact tracing are crucial. According to the World Health Organisation, “effective control measures rely on prevention, preparedness and response…provision of safe water and sanitation is critical in reducing the impact of cholera and other waterborne diseases.”

No deaths have been reported, but dozens of Bintulu residents have been hospitalised for cholera. Some have been housed in a temporary isolation centre at a nearby National Service training camp. – Mkini

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