Sun, 30 Mar 2003

RI issues moderate SARS alert to health centers, officers

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Amid rising global fears over the rapid spread of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), health officials at airports and seaports throughout the country still leave it to passengers' good conscience to report whether or not they have symptoms of the disease.

Since the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a travel advisory on March 15 to and from SARS-prone countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Vietnam, the government has only released to hospitals and health officials a letter on standard operating procedures in dealing with SARS-infected people, especially to medical workers at airports and seaports.

Health officials at ports have to distribute health alert cards issued by the Ministry of Health to passengers and flight crew from SARS-prone countries.

The cards contain general information on SARS symptoms, such as a high fever of over 38 degrees Celsius, coughing, difficulty in breathing and muscular aches, as well as what to do if the card recipients happen to have these symptoms.

Health officials at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport have since March 17 distributed such cards to passengers suspected of having SARS.

Since Saturday, however, health officials have started distributing health cards to all passengers coming from Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Vietnam.

"Since the global number of SARS cases is increasing rapidly, we started to implement these particular measures on Saturday. Previously, we distributed the cards only to passengers who seemed to have the symptoms," said Herbagyanto Purnomo, head of the airport health clinic.

The cards urged recipients to immediately report to nearby hospitals if they fell ill. "We expect the recipients to feel responsibility in reporting to health officials," he added.

Jakarta receives at least 900 passengers from Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Vietnam everyday.

Ngurah Rai Airport in Denpasar, Bali, which receives about 1,000 travelers from SARS-prone countries everyday, has also implemented the same measures. "Since March 20, we have distributed cards to all passengers arriving from Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China, Thailand and Taiwan," Dr. Mardiyani told The Jakarta Post on Saturday.

"We recommend those showing SARS symptoms to immediately undergo a health check with us. If the symptoms are similar to those of SARS, we will refer them to Sanglah Hospital. But so far, no case has been reported," she said.

She added that health officials could not check each passenger closely, because she thought they would feel annoyed. "We don't want to be considered as violating human rights."

At Polonia Airport in Medan, North Sumatra, health officials have established a medical surveillance post to observe passengers arriving from Singapore, Hong Kong and China.

As the passengers reach the immigration counter, Polonia health officials scrutinize them carefully to detect any passengers showing any SARS symptoms who would then be given health cards.

Meanwhile, head of the health clinic at Belawan seaport of Medan, Syahril Aritonang, said besides checking arriving passengers, health officials there also studied freightship crew from Hong Kong and Singapore, who frequent the seaport.

"We will further examine passengers suspected of SARS infection, and will quarantine those who have been diagnosed with SARS," he said.

At the same time, Puardi Djarius, head of the health agency in Batam, Riau, told the Post that his administration had issued a travel advisory to residents. "Traveling to Singapore is not recommended," he said.

The distance between Batam and Singapore, where 86 people have been infected and two have died so far, is only 20 km.

He said officials closely examined Singaporeans who traveled to Batam on the weekend. "We cannot ban them from coming here, so we study them, just in case any of them are showing symptoms of SARS," he said.

Meanwhile, in response to increasing rumors of Indonesians who have died from or have been diagnosed with SARS, director general Umar Fahmi Achmadi at the communicable diseases department of the Ministry of Health told the Post on Saturday that so far, no confirmed cases had been reported.

"As of 7:15 a.m. on Saturday, no SARS case has been confirmed," said Umar, who has recently been making rounds to Jakarta hospitals, following up on any rumors of a possible SARS case.