Sat, 29 Mar 2003

Concerns raised over government monitoring of SARS

Evi Mariani and Sari P. Setiogi, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Indonesia's first Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) cases could have arrived on a flight from Singapore on Thursday but it appears nobody is bothering to check.

Soekarno-Hatta International Airport health clinic head Herbagyanto Purnomo said it had given health alert cards to four passengers who arrived in Jakarta on a flight from Singapore early Thursday evening.

However, Herbagyanto said that as of Friday evening no measures regarding the passengers had been taken by Jakarta health authorities.

According to standard operating procedures, health officials at air and seaports have to immediately report any suspected cases to the local health agency, which will then monitor the health of the card recipients.

The disease, which the Chinese government has just admitted was first recorded in southern China last November, has claimed 54 victims. Most of the 1,408 confirmed cases detected around the world are in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore.

Herbagyanto's revelations seem to contradict government claims that it is intensifying precautionary measures at Indonesian entry points due to the worldwide outbreak of the often fatal disease.

"Port authorities have been distributing health alert cards to passengers with symptoms of the disease who have just arrived from SARS-prone areas. The cards are provided with information on SARS," Ministry of Health communicable disease director general Umar Fahmi Achmadi said Friday.

The ministry has issued a travel advisory asking people to avoid visiting countries already affected by the disease.

Earlier Friday, University of Indonesia School of Medicine (FKUI) specialists said they had not yet confirmed any cases of SARS in Indonesia, despite the frequent travel of people from here to the SARS-hit countries.

Pulmonologists Dr. Anwar Yusuf and Dr. Priyanti, microbiologist Dr. Amin Subandrio as well as the head of the Continuing Medical Education Unit of FKUI, Dr. Menaldi Rasmin, said that although no antidote had been found, they were ready to provide initial treatment, should there be any SARS cases reported.

"So, in the meantime all we can do for SARS patients is provide supportive treatments to develop defense mechanisms against the virus," Amin said.

They said that traveling to SARS-prone areas was strongly advised against and those who had to go needed to be extra cautious.

The pneumonia-like virus spreads through the air.

"For example, if SARS patients cough or sneeze, they spread virus droplets in the air. It stays active for one to two hours and can infect people around," said Anwar.

The virus also stays on surfaces of things like tables or handrails. "So, frequently washing your hands when you happen to be in an endemic area is strongly recommended," Amin said.

Meanwhile, most hospitals in Jakarta said they were now preparing for possible SARS cases.

The spokesperson for St. Carolus hospital in Central Jakarta, Endang Suryatno, said it had prepared four isolation rooms with special masks and gowns in the event of any SARS cases.

The Siloam Gleneagles Hospital in Tangerang has also prepared several isolation rooms, while Dr. Tjandra Yoga Aditama from Persahabatan Hospital, East Jakarta, said it had prepared three main steps for SARS.

"We urged our medical staff to keep themselves updated with any development of SARS and briefed them with special standard operating procedures," Tjandra said,