(Sibu, Thursday): The Sarawak DAP State Chairman and DAP Assemblyman for Pelawan, Sdr. Jason Wong, the DAP Assemblyman for Bukit Assek, Sdr. Richard Wong Ho Leng and I met the Divisional Medical and Health Officer, Dr. Tan Teck Hoe and the Medical Superintendent of the Sibu General Hospital, Dr. Rahim bin Abdullah for a briefing of the alleged Coxsackie Virus B outbreak in Sarawak which had claimed 23 infant lives.
It is a matter of grave concern that after almost two months since the first death in the current viral outbreak on 14th April, the epidemic has not been brought under control with new cases being reported as well as continuing increase in the number of deaths.
Although the Health Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng had announced on June 9 that Coxsackie Virus B had been confirmed as the cause of the deadly viral outbreak, in actual fact, this is only a very intelligent guess as there had been no definitive confirmation of the agent behind the viral outbreak.
As pointed out by medical experts on June 10 on an Internet website maintained by the Department of Pathology and Microbiology, University of Nebraska Medical Centre on Concern about a Series of Pediatric Deaths in Malaysia:
"To date (Monday, June 10, 1997) and to the best of my knowledge at this writing, there have been no confirmations of what the agent is in this series of tragedies.
"To the best of my knowledge at this writing, there have been as yet no isolations of an infectious agent from any affected organs of the deceased.
"To the best of my understanding at this writing, there have been few - indeed, if any - detailed autopsies as well.
"Because of this, it cannot be stated that the agent that is causing this event is biological (such as a virus or bacterium) or something else (for example, a toxin). Although the antibody data are suggestive, such data are by no means conclusive.
"Therefore, one should be particularly cautious about prescribing and/or using specific treatments for diseases, because the cause is not known."
The reservations of the American medical experts at the University of Nebraska Medical Centre are valid and to-the-point as up to now there had not been a single autopsy done on any of the victims of the alleged Cocksackie Virus B outbreak so that heart tissues could be sent for examination and to be cultured to isolate the virus responsible for the deadly epidemic.
Parents who suffer the trauma of losing their children in the epidemic should agree to an autopsy in the public as well as international interest to determine the real strain of the virus which is causing the havoc.
Even the two experts from the Atlanta Centres for Disease Control (CDC) who have arrived in Sibu yesterday would be hampered in their work for the lack of definitive confirmation of the cause of the viral outbreak.
It is most unsatisfactory that two months after the first death, the deadly virus attack is not only not yet under control, but the real cause for it has not been definitively established - which is bound to impede efforts to save lives, bring the epidemic under control as well as prevent a future recurrence.
One of the biggest problems in the epidemic is public confidence in the Health Ministry in the handling of the viral outbreak. The decision by the Health Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng, to impose a clampdown on all press briefings by the medical officers and personnel in Sarawak, reserving to himself the sole authority to call press conferences in Kuala Lumpur smacks of a cover-up and had eroded public confidence in the authorities.
No action could be more stupid than this to destroy public confidence, making the people of Sarawak prey to all sorts of rumours and speculations.
I call on Chua Jui Meng to immediately rescind this decision and to allow the various medical personnel in the various districts the authority to inform the press and the public about the latest developments in the viral outbreak.
Without the medical authorities acting with accountability and transparency, there can be no restoration of public confidence - as evidenced by the exodus of the people of Sibu in particular and Sarawakians generally to take their children to outside the state of Sarawak.
In this connection, the decision of the Federal Cabinet yesterday not to declare emergency holidays is another very unwise action. What is the use of insisting on opening schools for Std. I to III when there are so few students that normal classes cannot be conducted?
A week ago, the Health Minister announced that the government had sent SOS on the Internet by posting a bulletin seeking help on the outbreak. I will like to know whether the Health Ministry had made full use of the responses, advice and offers of assistance which had been given in response to this Internet appeal by the Health Ministry.
I understand that Dr. Will Taylor, Associate Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Georgia had suggested that there are two drugs which might d help in fighting the viral outbreak. One is Pleconaril made in the United States while the other is Selenase manufactured in Germany.
Dr. Will Taylor had also contacted Dr. Jian-Chu Hou, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing, who is prepared to share his expertise in regard to the use of selenium versus an acutely lethal viral infection. Dr. Hou has considerable experience in regard to dose and toxicity issues in treating CVB myocarditis with selenium, and he could also help to get in touch with other Chinese scientists and clinicians.
Dr. Will Taylor had also offered on 6th June to contact the German manufacturer of the drug Selenase to ask them to donate and immediately ship the drug to Sarawak, provided this was needed by the Malaysian medical authorities. However, up to now, the Malaysian medical authorities have not indicated that they want the Selenase drug shipment.
The people of Sarawak and Malaysia are entitled to know from the Health Minister whether the government had made full use of the offers of assistance as a result of the Health Ministry’s SOS appeal on the Internet.