Sat, 05 Apr 2003

Govt deploys more doctors to big airports

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The government has deployed more medical doctors at major airports across the country as the number of suspected Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) cases rose to six on Friday.

Director for epidemiology surveillance, immunization, and health at the Ministry of Health Indriyono said 12 doctors had been stationed at the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Cengkareng, west of Jakarta; 15 at Denpasar's Ngurah Rai Airport in Bali, and another four at Batam's International Airport in Riau, 24 hours after the government declared SARS a national threat and implementing a law on epidemics.

At gate one of terminal D at Soekarno-Hatta airport, one medical doctor and three health officials -- all wearing masks -- met passengers arriving from Taiwan and Singapore, while distributing yellow health alert cards to them.

The passengers had to write their name, passport number, complete addresses in Indonesia and port of departure, and hand them back to the officials.

"Could you please write down your district on this? Because we need your complete address," a health official said to a woman who apparently lived in a village in Ponorogo, East Java.

Meanwhile, the doctors carefully observed all passengers to check for those who displayed signs of illness. "We don't examine each passenger because it would not enable us to determine whether the person is carrying the SARS virus or not. In the incubation period of two to seven days, no symptoms are visible," said Roeselar, one of the airport doctors.

As the public becomes more concerned the government is expected to take tighter measures to prevent SARS from spreading in the country. Recently, jitters among the general public can be seen from the numerous phone calls, e-mails and short messaging service (SMS) between people, phone calls inundating the SARS hotline number, newspaper headlines and continuous television coverage, as well as the rising demand for masks.

However, health officials at the airport are taking the same measures as they had taken before the government announced the implementation of Law No.4/1984 on epidemics.

The only difference is that the government has added doctors and medical personnel at the airport and that health officials now feel they have more authority in carrying out their duties.

"We feel more confident because we are implementing a law, so people have to comply," said Roeselar.

At Ngurah Rai International Airport in Denpasar, Bali, where about 800 foreigners are expected to come to participate in the planned 52nd Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) conference from April 13 to April 17, tighter measures have been taken.

Chief of the immigration office at the airport I Gde Widiartha said on Friday that any incoming foreign passengers and flight crew who were suspected of having SARS would be denied entry to Bali.

"Based on Law No. 9/1997 on immigration, we have the authority not to issue an entry permit for certain individuals," he said. "Those who are suspected of having SARS will be deported or sent back to their port of embarkation."

This decision, according to Widiartha, has been implemented since Friday morning. Immigration officers, airport authorities and relevant agencies have been notified of the decision.

Furthermore, all immigration officers on duty have been told to wear protective masks to prevent the possible transmission of the SARS virus, he said.

In Makassar, South Sulawesi, local councillors held a meeting on Friday with local health agency officials to discuss measures to prevent the spread of SARS.

"Although there is no international airport here, there is still the possibility of people with SARS entering our town," said the head of Makassar health agency Dr. Armyn Nurdin.

The agency also appointed Wahidin Soedirohoesodo Hospital to treat SARS patients.

Health officials in Makassar's Hasanuddin seaport have established a medical post for SARS and also put up posters containing information about SARS at many spots.

According to information from respective hospitals, one more suspected SARS patient was admitted to Sulyanti Saroso Infectious Diseases Hospital at Sunter, North Jakarta on Friday, bringing the total to six.

One suspected SARS patient is currently being confined in Batam, Riau; one died in Jakarta last week, reportedly not because of SARS but of multiple-organ failure; two were released from hospital in Jakarta and are being monitored; and one in Semarang, Central Java was declared free from SARS as he was suffering from normal pneumonia.

Globally, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report on April 3, 2,270 people have been infected with SARS, of whom 97 have died.

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