The Batek Orang Asli community in a village in Kelantan is still grappling with the multiple deaths and illnesses that it suffered.
THEIR carefree life vanished overnight.
The folk in Kampung Kuala Koh have been dropping dead or becoming seriously ill for a month since May.
While 15 died within the period, another 163 who survived are still under quarantine in Gua Musang, Kelantan, about 90 minutes’ drive from the village with just about 200 people.
The remaining 20 plus people, including small children, are a forlorn sight.
Life before was the men hunting for food in the nearby jungle once every two or three months, the women looking after the carefree kids at home.
To date, the Health Ministry has identified measles as the cause of death for only three of the 15 cases. The remaining deaths remain a mystery.
There was another death in the village on July 7, again was due to measles, according to the ministry.
The deaths surfaced only when local media started reporting on the unusual phenomenon in early June, pursuing the story relentlessly.
“It is a very painful sight,” describes Datuk Dr Mah Hang Soon who visited the villagers on Wednesday.
“I met the mother who ate rice with cooking oil only.
“She is taking care of her small children while her husband and two other kids are still under quarantine in a centre in Gua Musang after they survived and were discharged from hospital,” says Dr Mah.
While there has been no more deaths reported since, it looks like the villagers’ nightmare is far from over.
Initial findings show the possibility of toxic pollution in the village, traced to illegal manganese mining activities nearby that might have left toxic substances behind.
The mining was halted after the deaths came to light.
Dr Mah questions the ministry’s findings on the 12 deaths, and also the Department of Environment (DOE) about the pollution.
“Why are they taking so long to make the findings public,” asks Dr Mah, pointing out that the Orang Asli tend to be voiceless and that this is why they need help and protection more than ever.
A two-term assemblyman (2008-2018) for Chenderiang (in Perak) where the electorate includes Orang Asli, Dr Mah says they need help to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty, and that education for the children helps.
For these Batek Orang Asli, though, the primary and secondary schools some 100km away are beyond their reach.
“I was told the nearest primary school that offers classes for Year One to Year Three is accessible,” he says, adding that the government has to look into this situation seriously.
Formal education not only paves the way to a better future but also increases their awareness on important matters like health, he adds.
Tests of local water samples show a manganese level 25 times that of the 0.1mg/litre safety level under World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines – this is alarming, says Dr Mah, who is a cardiologist.
The Federation of Private Medical Practitioners’ Associations Malaysia (FPMPAM) revealed that its analysis of local water samples show the water supply in Kampung Kuala Koh contained manganese in concentrations of 2.53mg/litre and requested that the authorities not rule out manganese toxicity in the tragedy.
But Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad said it is wrong (for FPMPAM) to link manganese pollution with the deaths.
According to him, it is difficult to determine the cause of death of the other 12, as there are only bones left, with hardly any flesh for the forensic team to analyse.
But Dr Mah begs to differ, saying that samplings of bones, hair and nails can still be tested for manganese, as the substance remains in the body for some years.
Dr Mah also notes that manganese toxicity can trigger problems in the nervous system similar to stroke and debilitating Parkinson’s disease.
He says the Orang Asli are generally malnourished, which places them in the high risk group for any disease as they have a lower defense system or recovery rate when taken ill.
Unfortunately, what the FPMPAM discovered may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Last Tuesday, news agency Bernama reported Universiti Malaysia Kelantan’s (UMK) initial testing shows a probability of water and soil pollution in the village and surroundings.
UMK has started testing water and soil samples taken from in and around Sungai Lebir and a few streams from which the Orang Asli get their potable water.
UMK Bioengineering and Technology Faculty’s senior lecturer Dr Abdul Hafidz Yusoff says there is a possibility there are dangerous toxic substances in the river sediment believed to be from illegal mining activities in the area.
He however told Bernama that he cannot reveal the types of toxic substances as tests are still ongoing and expected to be completed only in November.
Dr Abdul Hafidz says the river may be polluted but usually the level of toxic substances – such as arsenic, cadmium and mercury – is not high in the water when tested because these toxins settle into the river bed after being washed into it suspended in soil. From there, the toxins will be released into the water, he explains.
He says that UMK is also testing the fish from the river for toxic substances, adding that the toxic substances can also be in the air and settling on vegetation.
As such, the Orang Asli are exposed to multiple sources of pollution and not just from the water supply.
Mercury, used for manganese extraction, can cause brain and nerve damage, kidney failure and cancer and can even be fatal.
Other substances usually found during mining activities include arsenic, which can cause lung inflammation, skin cancer and heart problems.
While the good news is that the quarantined Orang Asli are scheduled to return home today and reunite with their families, the road ahead for them is still riddled with uncertainties.
“I hope this tragic episode will see the government taking steps to help the Orang Asli and that those who died did not die in vain,” says Dr Mah.