Wed, 19 Mar 2003

Flu-like illness has potential to spread to Indonesia: Doctor

Moch. N. Kurniawan, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Indonesia must be vigilant about the possible spread of a mysterious flu-like illness to the country, especially through Indonesian migrant workers returning home from the affected countries and territories, especially Hong Kong.

Eminent physician Kartono Mohamad warned that Indonesian migrant workers returning from Hong Kong were potential carriers of the disease, which originally broke out in that area.

"As these workers normally have low levels of education, even if they were infected they would probably not report it to a health center," he told The Jakarta Post.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is contagious and can attack anyone. It is spread through the air and has an incubation period of between two and seven days. An infected person can die within this period. No cure has yet been found for SARS.

The Indonesian government announced on Monday that no Indonesians had been infected so far by the illness. Nevertheless, it acknowledged that an Indonesian had been in contact with a SARS patient in Hanoi, Vietnam, where at least 31 people had been infected.

According to Kartono, the person in question is a businessman living in Jakarta. The person's health is still being monitored closely.

The World Health Organization declared the pneumonia strain "a worldwide health threat" on Saturday as it had killed at least nine people and endangered the lives of hundreds of others.

SARS has so far infected China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand and Canada.

The Indonesian government has taken several steps to prevent the spread of the disease here, including issuing warnings to airports, seaports, hospitals and health clinics, importing special masks, and establishing a 24-hour hotline (62-21-424-7608 and 62-21-4240611).

A number of Indonesians planning to travel abroad, especially to the affected countries, said they would not cancel their trips, but acknowledged they would take more precautions.

"Yes, I will still go. But I will be more careful. I'll bring some vitamins, and read more information about what SARS really is and how to avoid being infected with it. With these preparations, I believe we won't be infected with the disease," said Laura Munaba, an executive living in Jakarta.

Health experts have called on the government to step up its campaign to highlight the dangers of the mystery illness.

Marius Widjajanto of the Indonesian Health Consumers Empowerment Foundation said on Tuesday that the government must not underestimate the dangers of SARS, although no victims had been identified here as yet.

"Instead of announcing that there are no SARS cases here, the government should be campaigning actively and continuously through the mass media about what exactly SARS is and what people should do if they find someone who may be infected with SARS," he told The Jakarta Post.

He was worried that concrete action would not be taken given that the government had announced that no SARS cases had been discovered here.

"If SARS later breaks out here, who must be held responsible for the mistake?" he said.

Dodi Firmanto of the Indonesian Doctors Association (IDI) agreed that the government must step up its campaign against the dangers of SARS.

"The government must improve its information network to inform the public quickly should any SARS cases be found here," he said.

The government should also be ready to localize the cases immediately.

Health clinics and posts must be empowered to immediately detect SARS so that they can provide medical assistance to SARS victims, he said.