Wrong To Focus On Measles, ‘Perfect Storm’ Killed Bateq People

Dr Steven Chow says the government has yet to explain how the Bateq tribe fell through the social safety net.

KUALA LUMPUR, June 18 — A doctors’ group told the government not to solely focus on measles or the nomadic Bateq tribe’s traditions after an outbreak killed 15 Orang Asli.

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 — also said it was wrong to look for just one single cause of death.

He cited the possibility of associated infections, as well as malnutrition and possible toxic degradation of the living environment, water, and compromised food supply of the Bateq Orang Asli community residing in Kampung Kuala Koh in Gua Musang, Kelantan.

“Clearly, pursuing the present narrative of putting the blame on the disease, be it measles alone or in addition to other infections, and the tradition of the Bateq people is just not right,” Dr Chow said in a statement.

“This tragedy is the result of a perfect storm where socio-economic pressures on a indigenous community, environmental degradation, disparity and inequality of basic health care needs and disease have culminated in preventable deaths and suffering in a community left behind.

“The long term solution is for the present government to address this gross inequality and disparity in healthcare of this and similar communities due to lapses and excesses of the previous administration,” he added.

Kelantan has long been governed by PAS. The Department of Orang Asli Development (Jakoa), however, is under federal jurisdiction. Pakatan Harapan won federal power more than a year ago in the 14th general election, ousting Barisan Nasional that previously governed the country for more than six decades.

Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad — when confirming that measles was the infection that had sickened 112 people, or 61 per cent of the Kuala Koh village — said yesterday that health providers found it difficult to provide comprehensive health services because of the Bateq tribe’s nomadic lifestyle.

The Amanah lawmaker 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.

“There is just not enough jungle now in that area for their traditional nomadic way of life. It is a death trap. Their land has been taken away for commercial activities.

“Year by year, the land area for their livelihood shrinks. We cannot be laying blame on them. We should look for where and how the system has failed,” Dr Chow said in response.

Dzulkefly also confirmed that a severely malnourished two-year-old boy from the Bateq tribe died Monday from measles complicated by pneumonia. Health authorities attributed two previous deaths to pneumonia, while post-mortems have yet to be conducted on 12 more bodies.

Dr Chow said the “Drs for All” medical team found no measles infections when they visited Kuala Koh last April 28, but the doctors did find many cases of children with upper respiratory tract infection, diarrhoeal illness, worm infestation, skin infections with scabies, Tinea imbricata and malnutrition.

“Yes, complications of measles infection can and will kill if you are undernourished and have an immune-deficiency,” he said.

“We should also be looking for fungal pneumonia and fungal septicaemia, especially so when there seems to be an unusually high incidence of fungal skin infections and evidence of decreased immunity.”

Dr Chow stressed that Kuala Koh was accessible by road, saying there was no acceptable reason for the lack of basic medical care in the community.

“When we were there the entire village came for help. They did not run away into the jungle to hide. They all came to seek medical help.”

The doctor said the government has yet to investigate or explain how the Bateq tribe, Malaysia’s last indigenous nomadic community, fell through the social safety net.

“We still do not have sufficient information with regards to the safety of their source of water supply. I have seen documentation of their source of water supply and I cannot agree that it is safe for human consumption. We urge the authorities to relook into this.”

Deputy Prime Minister Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said last week that the Department of Environment’s analysis of water samples at a manganese mine in Kuala Koh showed they were not polluted.

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