Mon, 16 Jun 2003

Haze leaves 220 with respiratory ailments in Riau

Haidir Anwar Tanjung, The Jakarta Post, Pekanbaru, Riau

More than 220 people in Riau suffered from an acute respiratory ailment (ISPA) between June 10 and June 12 due to choking haze that has now reached an alarming level.

Chief of the local health office Ekmal Rusdi said here on Saturday that the patients who reported being ill over the last three days were still undergoing medical treatment at 13 public health centers in the province.

"The number of ISPA cases has drastically increased, to an average of five cases per day over the last two months, from one case per day during the first four months of this year. We fear that the cases will increase, as choking, thick haze still blankets the province," he said.

He added his office was still compiling data on the total number of ISPA cases over the last two months, while the figure for the period January through April was 6,700.

But so far, no fatalities have been reported.

Ekmal reiterated that people should not leave home, especially at night, if the air was heavily polluted.

"Furthermore, Pekanbaru residents living in slum areas and prone to a variety of health problems should use dampened face masks if they have to leave their house," he said, adding that, besides respiratory problems, some of the patients also suffered skin diseases.

Ekmal said the provincial government would ask all schools to close and students to remain at home if the haze worsened.

Thick haze from forest fires has hit the province over the last three months, causing health concerns and disrupting traffic in the province.

The thick haze has reappeared annually, as farmers and plantation and timber companies have traditionally used fire to clear their land for agriculture and plantations during the dry season.

Authorities have detected a number of hot spots, fluctuating between 500 and 1,200. The burning of forests and bushes has been rampant, not only in this province, but also in other parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan.

Authorities are still investigating 20 companies that allegedly caused forest fires in the province. The 1999 forestry law carries a maximum penalty of 15 years' imprisonment and a maximum fine of Rp 500 million (US$60,975) upon conviction.