Sun, 13 Apr 2003

WHO praises government measures on SARS

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Despite public criticism, the government has received praise from World Health Organization (WHO) for its measures to cope with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in the country.

"I know that health officials here have been doing a lot these weeks and I think the government has been delivering the measures well," WHO technical advisor on SARS in Indonesia, Steve Bjorg, told The Jakarta Post on Saturday.

On Friday, the verification team at the Ministry of Health announced that Indonesia recorded one probable case of SARS. This is the first probable case identified since WHO declared the disease a global threat last month. Indonesia declared the disease a national threat on April 3 and imposed Law No. 4/1984 on epidemics, which allows the government to take necessary measures to tackle the spread of the pneumonia-type virus.

There have been 3,234 cases of SARS around the globe. A total of 123 people have died, mainly in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore and Canada.

Bjorg said that the latest finding of a probable SARS case in Indonesia should raise everyone's concern about SARS and would prompt the government to heighten its measures.

"We will also continue with our precautionary measures," he said.

He said, however, the SARS outbreak had sparked excessive responses from some people as indicated by the panic buying of masks. The prices of masks has skyrocketed due to the ballooning demand.

"Well, I myself am not planning to wear a mask, unless I go to places I think would likely be SARS-affected such as hospitals," he said.

He said that WHO-recommended the wearing of N-95 masks for SARS patients, health care workers who were taking care SARS patients and family members who had close contact with them.

"As for the general public, I don't think it's necessary for them to wear masks," he said.

Although the concern is understandable, the general public are not required to wear masks, he said.

"It takes more than just a mask to protect ourselves from the virus."

The government has repeatedly called on the public to stay calm in responding to the epidemic. It has also imported one million surgical masks from China to be given to patients and their families. The masks are expected to arrive next week.

Criticism of the public's overreaction also came from physician Hendrawan Nadesul.

"I know that some schools here are requiring the students to wear masks. And some members of the public are frantically buying masks. I don't think that's necessary," he told a seminar on SARS held by Senior health tabloid here on Saturday.

"To protect ourselves against SARS we have to maintain physical fitness, follow a healthy lifestyle, wear a mask when necessary and avoid hospitals," he said.

"The Ministry of Health has to draw up guidelines on SARS for the public. For example, a guide for when and where should one should wear a mask and what type of mask is required in certain situations and places," he said.

He suggested that the information should be distributed widely in a brochure form.

An Indonesian activist with a Hong Kong-based non-governmental organization, Nurul Qoiriah, shared with the Post Hong Kong's experience in tackling SARS.

"The Hong Kong administration has distributed SARS pamphlets to people everywhere, in several languages, such as Thai and Indonesian for migrant workers there," she said.

"Thanks to the pamphlet I received, I know many things about SARS so I never panic," she said.