Call on the Health Ministry to provide vital SARS figures

Press Statement
by Fong Po Kuan

(Ipoh, Friday): The Health Ministry had explained its decision not to disclose to the public the cumulative number of SAR cases so as to have "a clearer picture" of the state of suspected SARS cases. Health Minister Datuk Chua Jui Meng said that the Ministry did not want to confuse the public and only cases still under surveillance would be reported and not those which had been excluded. Today's newspapers also reported WHO's agreement with the Ministry that only current and not cumulative SARS cases should be reported.

However, a visit to the website of the Ministry of Health of Hong Kong and the Ministry of Health of Singapore show figures of cumulative cases displayed. Even the WHO also provides daily update of cumulative number or reported cases of SARS. Considering that Hong Kong and Singapore which are both seriously affected with SARS have no problem providing cumulative figures and that the public is not confused with the figures made available by their respective ministries, the explanation given by the Malaysian Health Ministry is unacceptable.

The Ministry keeps on saying that allegations of "covering up" of SARS cases are not true but the very decision of the Ministry to stop providing cumulative figures can only have the effect of lending credence to the truth of such allegations.

The Ministry has also proudly published its website address in the newspapers and on leaflets on SARS. Regrettably, however, the website is poorly managed, uninformative and lacking in updated information. When I visited the website this morning, the latest information available is as at 6 p.m. 9.4.2003.

After I visited the website, I could only conclude that the updating of the website is merely lip service. I had told Chua during his briefing on SARS to MPs in Parliament yesterday that there is a need to provide more information on the website to the public. I said, "If we want to learn from Singapore, learn the whole package."

I would like to suggest to the Ministry of Health steps that should be taken to end the public confusion and to give a clearer picture to the public on the true extent of the SARS outbreak in Malaysia, that is, the Ministry should provide:-

1. cumulative cases
2. probable cases
3. suspected cases
4. number of patients quarantined
5. number of patients discharged
6. number of patients in isolation wards
7. updates on the condition of patients

The details of patients are of importance too, e.g. age, gender and locality as well as the linkages of all these cases, namely whether the 135 SARS cases are somehow related, such as passengers of the same flight, family members of SARS patients, the movement and "contact" of patients before they are admitted to hospitals for treatment and efforts taken to trace them.

On 9 April, Malaysiakini reported the Deputy Director General of the Health Ministry as saying that 17 notifications of SARS cases had been received out of which 10 patients were hospitalized. These patients were classified as 'non-SARS patients' and put in isolation wards as a preventive measure. Yet, Chua had said in Parliament on April 3 that notification cases are suspect cases. This can only create further confusion to the press and the public, especially now that the Health Ministry website carries a new category, i.e. 'non-SARS'. Hence Chua must also clarify what the Ministry means by 'non-SARS'.


* Fong Po Kuan,  Member of Parliament for Batu Gajah and DAP Central Executive Committee