WHEN I landed at KL International Airport on April 1 from Changi Airport everything seemed normal except for a nurse seated near Customs clearance. She was not wearing a mask or other protective gear and appeared oblivious to the weary-looking crowd.
Minutes after checking out, a friend telephoned me. “Don’t play the fool. Go to the hospital immediately and do a test,” he said, obviously referring to the SARS scare.
His voice sounded urgent since I had just returned from a three-week trip to Shanghai, and had transited Singapore, which was reeling from the SARS outbreak.
I had taken the necessary preventive measures during my stay in China, but I still immediately consulted a senior medical specialist and was reassured that I was fine, at least up to that point.
By the end of last month, SARS, said to have originated in China’s Guangdong province last November, had killed at least 55 people while some 1,500 were ill in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam and Canada.
Despite the grim statistics elsewhere, the assurance by Health Minister Datuk Chua Jui Meng on March 26 that there was no SARS case in Malaysia and that the World Health Organisation had commended the country for its swift action in checking its occurrence still gave the public little comfort.
Compared to the April 1 morning, the scene at KLIA on April 5 had changed dramatically.
Chua and a group of journalists accompanying him donned masks and gloves. He was showing them the SARS screening centre there.
The scene brought back memories of the Japanese Encephalitis/Nipah Virus outbreak in Negri Sembilan in 1999 when over 100 deaths were reported.
Two hours later, at a press conference at the Health Ministry, director-general Tan Sri Dr Mohamad Taha Ariff announced the first SARS death in Malaysia.
Said the senior medical specialist: “It is very important to get the public on the side of the medical authorities, right from the beginning and at every stage when handling outbreaks or potential outbreaks.”
Contrary to certain people’s belief that highlighting an outbreak could create panic, he said, ensuring that the people were well-informed would gain their confidence and full co-operation, especially when implementing preventive measures and getting feedback.
He said Malaysians learned valuable lessons from the two previous outbreaks – the JE/Nipah virus and the Coxsackie virus which killed more than 30 children in Sarawak in 1997.
The JE/Nipah outbreak which was first diagnosed as JE (spread by Culex mosquitoes from infected pigs to humans) was later attributed to the Nipah virus which was carried by air (droplets from infected pigs to humans).
Long before the Nipah virus was identified, family members of those who fell victim had already complained to media that they became seriously ill despite being vaccinated against JE before going back to the pig farms.
Unfortunately, their feedback fell on deaf ears – among the reasons given were that it took time for the vaccine to become effective and that no vaccine will give 100% protection.
The Nipah incident and the Coxsackie outbreak were both first highlighted by the media.
It was ironic that the health authorities declared Perak JE-free on Dec 17 after seven deaths, because the Nipah virus jumped to Negri Sembilan, then home to the country’s biggest pig rearing community with over 600,000 pigs.
In the short span of six months, 100 mostly pig farmers had died, and with it the end of the billion-ringgit pig rearing industry.
Last year, between June and July, the sudden deaths of three local university students, all in their 20s, in Selangor over three weeks caused a health scare.
All were apparently healthy and had complained of fever, headache before they collapsed and died. Their deaths were attributed to “meningitis- linked.”
While the authorities were furious with the wide media coverage of the three deaths, it appears, at least on hindsight, that there was no guarantee it could not have been the start of a mystery disease outbreak.
With the 1997 and 1999 tragedies still relatively fresh in their minds, Malaysian are generally on the alert for any potential outbreaks that could jeopardise their health and well-being.
Constantly updated information and preventive measures conveyed in simple-to-understand terms will certainly help comfort the public and ease their minds.
It would be also helpful if the authorities can address the many situations Malaysians have to grapple with, such as whether they should continue to send their children to school.