Doctors: Measles A Red Herring In Bateq Tragedy

Although complications from measles can lead to death, 10 of the 15 victims were adults.

KUALA LUMPUR, July 18 — Clinical evidence shows that measles is not the only cause of death for 15 Bateq Orang Asli in Kampung Kuala Koh, Gua Musang, a group of doctors said today.

The Federation of Private Medical Practitioners’ Association Malaysia (FPMPAM) said although complications from measles could lead to death, especially if one suffered from malnutrition, most of the 15 deaths in the Kelantanese village from last May to June involved adults, not children.

According to FPMPAM, only a third of the 15 victims were children aged five and below, while the remaining 10 victims were 18 and above.

”We believe measles was a red herring that obscured the analysis of the other possible causes of mortality. Other causes of death must be looked into as well,” said FPMPAM in their report titled “The Bateq Tragedy, Kg Kuala Koh — Prelude to a Disaster” that they presented to Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad today.

“The data and clinical evidence is indicative that it is not only measles that is the cause of death.”

Dr Steven Chow — author of the report who is also FPMPAM president and founding chairman of the DrsForAll medical aid programme — pointed out that the wife of one of the victims reported that the victim’s symptoms included developing acute pain in the throat, swelling of the mouth, and inability to eat or swallow at the onset of the fatal illness.

“This is clearly unlike measles or measles-associated pneumonia,” said the FPMPAM report shared with CodeBlue.

Out of 140 cases of illness in Kuala Koh, only 37 cases tested positive for measles, the doctors’ group noted. 

The doctors also questioned why most, if not all the 15 deaths, were clustered around five families, including some victims who were married to each other.

FPMPAM said excluding the Tok Batin, the Hamdan family suffered five deaths, all adults. 

“This family is now virtually wiped out”.


Out of the 140 patients FPMPAM saw in Kuala Koh during their medical mission last April 28, the medical team did not find any cases of measles. They instead saw many children with upper respiratory tract infections, diarrhoeal illness, worm infestation, skin infections with rabies, Tinea imbricata and malnutrition. 

Four of those 140 patients succumbed to illness. The deceased Tok Batin, who reportedly died from a stroke, and his brother Jais Hamdan had Parkinson’s-like facial features when they were seen, FPMPAM reported. Jais suffered from slurred speech too and was bed-bound during FPMPAM’s visit.

The doctors also found that the water sources from Sg Lebir and Sg Pertang in Kuala Koh were not safe for human consumption. 

“The water source is polluted, unsafe and toxic,” according to FPMPAM, which said the water was not suitable for human consumption unless it has been extensively treated.

High faecal contamination of the water and toxic levels of manganese were found in multiple locations, said FPMPAM, citing three independent studies by itself, the Centre for Malaysian Indigenous Studies, and Pertubuhan Perlindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia (PEKA).

FPMPAM said its study found a six-fold increase in the manganese level of one water source after brief rainfall, while another source had a manganese level 25 times above the safety level.

Long-term consumption of high levels of manganese could lead to chronic ill health and damage to the brain, liver, heart and other organs, said the doctors.

FPMPAM recommended an immediate and sustainable supply of safe water and food to the Bateq tribe, the sealing of all unsafe water sources, and the shutdown of mining or logging activities that contributed to the degradation of the water and the environment.

The doctors also called for the full autopsy results, including toxicological data, on the remaining bodies to be made public, a further investigation on the familial clustering of deaths, and for the current probe to include other possibilities of death, infections, and chemicals.

FPMPAM raised the possibility of other forms of mining in the area that accounted for toxic chemicals like cyanide. It also called for toxicological studies on the surviving indigenous community to initiate pre-emptive treatment for manganese or other toxicity. 

“We support the call for an inquest to determine the cause of death of those who are yet to be confirmed,” said FPMPAM. 

“We urge the federal authorities to relook carefully into this tragedy.”

The health minister insisted recently that three Orang Asli from the Bateq tribe had died from measles, according to lab tests and autopsies, while post-mortems on the remaining dozen could not confirm the cause of death.

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