KUALA LUMPUR, June 17 — The mysterious infection that killed 14 Orang Asli from the Bateq tribe and sickened over 100 others in Kampung Kuala Koh, Gua Musang, turned out to be measles.
The Health Ministry confirmed 37 measles cases as of June 15 in the Kelantan village where Malaysia’s last indigenous nomadic community resided.
“Based on lab tests, the illness that struck the Orang Asli in Kampung Kuala Koh was measles,” Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad said in a statement.
He noted that measles immunisation coverage was low in Kuala Koh at only 61.5 per cent for the first dose of the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine and 30 per cent for the second dose. A coverage of 95 per cent is necessary to provide herd immunity, or to protect a population.
A toddler from the Bateq tribe also died yesterday evening at the Hospital Raja Perempuan Zainab from measles complicated by pneumonia, with severe malnourishment as a risk factor, which would bring the total deaths to 15.
Dzulkefly said the boy, who was two years and six months’ old, weighed only 7kg when he was supposed to weigh 13kg.
Two of the other 14 Orang Asli who died were confirmed to have died from pneumonia, one of the complications from measles.
Dzulkefly said the police have managed to retrieve the other 12 bodies from Kuala Koh that will be taken to Hospital Gua Musang for post-mortems.
A total of 112 cases, including the three pneumonia and malnutrition deaths, have been reported to the Health Ministry as of June 15. This represents 61 per cent of the 185 residents in Kuala Koh.
Measles is an extremely contagious disease, where one sick person can infect 12 to 18 people who are not resistant to the virus. In comparison, infectious diseases like polio, smallpox and rubella are far less contagious as a sick person is likely to infect five to seven people, followed by whooping cough (5.5), SARS (3 to 4), and Ebola (1.5 to 2).
When a person infected with measles coughs or sneezes, virus particles can remain in the air for up to two hours. Measles symptoms include fever with cough, conjunctivitis, and rashes after a few days.
Dr Steven Chow — president of the Federation of Private Medical Practitioners Association of Malaysia (FPMPAM) that runs a “Drs for All” programme to provide medical services for the Orang Asli — previously questioned how the Bateq tribe’s immunity fell to such poor levels.
He observed that Kuala Koh lacked basic medical care, safe and potable water supply, and food, despite reasonable road access to the village, while the women and children suffered from chronic malnutrition, skin infections, worm infestations, gastrointestinal infections and respiratory tract infections.