It’s blow after blow : Indonesia hit by dengue

With 175 people dead, the authorities now suspect a new sub-type of the virus to be the cause. Indonesia is put on alert.

Indonesia is facing another health scare.

Following the bird-flu outbreak, officials have warned that a new virus strain could be responsible for a proliferation of dengue-fever cases that have killed 175 people.

It has forced health authorities to raise the alert status in the country and scramble to treat about 8,700 infected with the disease, with concerns growing that the death toll could rise.

Dengue fever detected over the past month was more than twice the number recorded over the same period last year.

Mr Umar Fahmi Achmadi, the Health Ministry’s director-general for communicable diseases, said a new sub-type of dengue virus in addition to the existing four sub-variants – DEN-1, DEN-2, DEN-3 and DEN-4 – might be responsible.

But he cautioned it would take some time to confirm the suspicion. But time is running out as more are infected.

Medical practitioner Hariman Siregar told The Straits Times: ‘In the past, dengue fever was confined to certain locales in Indonesia, specifically in slum areas. But now it is nationwide and spreading.

‘The government is at a loss to deal with the problem because it is incompetent and, more importantly, does not have the funds to deal with an epidemic of this scale. It is no different from the way they handled the bird-flu saga.’

Health authorities here have been criticised for being slow to react to the bird-flu outbreak, giving conflicting statements on its policy.

Vice-President Hamzah Haz, the most senior Cabinet member to have spoken out on the issue, has demanded greater transparency.

‘Defensiveness, like in the handling of bird flu, should be avoided,’he was quoted as saying by the state Antara news agency.

The Indonesian media was also critical. The Jakarta Post said in an editorial yesterday that while the government faced financial and other constraints, ‘Indonesians are justified to ask why no steps were taken to at least soften the deadly impact of the present outbreak’.

Health ministry officials, stung by the criticism, appeared to be taking measures to fight the problem. Besides raising public awareness, it has set up a team to carry out tests to determine if a new dengue strain had emerged.

Researchers from health laboratories in Jakarta, Palembang, Surabaya and Makassar, and university labs nationwide are involved.

In addition, the Health Ministry has allocated 10 billion rupiah (S$2 million) for fumigation as a preventive measure. Aedes mosquitoes are responsible for spreading dengue fever. There is no vaccine or cure for the disease, apart from rest.

Hospitals here have also been ordered to give priority treatment to dengue patients.

The head of the World Health Organisation in Indonesia, Mr Georg Petersen, said his office would investigate the outbreak, but declined to say if he thought a new strain was involved.

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