(Dewan Rakyat, Thursday): I am very disappointed by the reply of the Health Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng yesterday on the viral encephalitis epidemic disaster which has killed at least 100 people, according to official Health Ministry estimates.
The Health Minister was unable to answer simple questions which I put to him during his winding-up speech on the Health Ministry yesterday.
Firstly, the reason for the discrepancy of figures of total deaths as a result of Japanese encephalitis (JE). The government’s official figure given a month ago was 18 confirmed JE deaths, but I pointed out yesterday that the World Health Organization (WHO) Western Pacific office had in a statement issued in Manila given different figures.
It said that of the fatalities which have been examined, 40 were caused by the ‘Nipah’ encephalitis strain, eight by Japanese encephalitis and 17 had dual infections.
There is also discrepancy in the total casualties given by the Health Ministry and the Centre of Diseases Control. For instance, on 8th April, CNN quoted Dr. Pierre Rollin of the CDC Special Pathogens Branch as saying that the death toll had risen to 116 in Malaysia, when the figures released by the Health Ministry on that day was 92 - a great difference of 24 deaths!
It is no use the Health Minister trying to fob off the question by suggesting that the CNN had an axe to grind and cannot be trusted, as what the people are interersted is to know the truth, especially as a CDC spokesman expressed bafflement about the difference in the statistics as the CDC figures were given by the Health Ministry.
Yesterday, the Health Minister was unable to explain why the Health Ministry website on the viral encephalitis outbreak continued to refer to cases, confirmed and suspect, for "JE/Hendra-like", when the JE and Nipah viruses are two entirely different viruses (in morphology, genome structure, host pathogenicity) though both cause encephalitis.
As the moderator of the ProMED (the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases) on the Internet said more than two weeks ago, "A diagnosis of ‘JE/Hendra-like’ is unacceptable; that’s a guess, not a diagnosis."
Why is the Health Ministry continuing to give such vague information on its website, instead of giving separate information for each of these two viruses?
It has been reported that for some of the encephalitis cases, the cause was neither Japanese encephalitis nor Nipah and still unknown. Is there a third viral encephalitis virus?
Chua Jui Meng indulged in a very cheap stunt when he quoted my statements last month purportedly to prove that I had been operating on the basis that the viral outbreak was JE, calling for regular anti-fogging and even aerial fogging to eliminateb the JE vector, the culex mosquito.
There is no need for the Health Minister to depend on the MP for Teluk Kemang for my statements. He can get them all from my website.
I never denied those statements, which were made when the Health Ministry had misled everyone in the country to belive that the virus outbreak was JE and nothing else.
The tragedy is why the Health Minister is still going around talking about JE, with the Cabinet Committee on JE still without a change of its name, and Ministers going round claiming that they have won the war against JE, when the killer virus is the Hendra-kind "Nipah" virus?
Is this because the Health Minister cannot admit that he had made a colossal mistake to focus on fighting the JE, involving mass JE vaccination of humans and pigs, resulting in unnecessary and completely avoidable deaths of at least 80 per cent of the cases involved? I will say that Chua Jui Meng is becoming a public health disaster in his refusal to admit that the focus on JE was wrong when it should be on the Hendra-like virus, which Chua Jui Meng has proposed be called Nipah virus.
Chua Jui Meng was being very mischievous when he alleged that I had no confidence in local professionals, when I had repeatedly said that Malaysian scientists and medical experts are among the best in the world, and the problem are the political interferences inister which did not allow them to make full use of their expertise.
Chua Jui Meng made a general allegation that I had tried to mislead the people by using statistics which were not updated, but he could not give a single example to substantiate his allegation.
I fully agree with Unimas virologist, Jane Cardoza, who said in the latest issue of Far Eastern Economic Review article on the viral disaster in Malaysia: "The incident just illustrates that the government just won’t listen to other people’s opinions. Professionals who are highly competent have no avenue of communication."
Jane had as early as mid-January sought to send out a warning that it was not the JE virus which is wreaking havoc in the country, and if the authorities had noted that the pattern of cases was unusual for Japanese encephalitis: age distribution (older people, rather than younger people), cases in JE-vaccinees (assuming that the administered vaccine was potent), absence of cases in family members (not characteristic of a mosquito-borne disease), sick pigs (JE virus does not make pigs sick), etc, the majority of the deaths would have been averted.
Let me state that the best service Chua Jui Meng can do now is to resign
as Health Minister so as to start a new culture of responsibility and accountability
for all Ministers and political leaders.