Health Ministry should commission an independent inquiry as to whether there is any cover-up of the SARS outbreak in Malaysia to ensure national and international confidence in its full transparency on the new killer virus

Media Conference Statement
DAP campaign to raise public SARS awareness at Bayan Baru market
by Lim Kit Siang

(Penang,  Friday):  The Chinese Government has undertaken to investigate allegations that the government is covering up the true extent of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Beijing, while admitting that some SARS cases may have been contracted in Beijing, something previously denied.

China's Vice Minister of Health Ma Xiaowei said yesterday that the number of SARS cases in Beijing had risen to 22 with four deaths. But those figures are far lower than the number of SARS patients reported by a Beijing doctor who said he knows in one hospital alone there were at least 60 cases and seven deaths.

The doctor, Jiang Yangyong from one of Beijing's military hospitals (Chinese People's Liberation Army General hospital), described the official figures as nonsense" and contacted foreign reporters.

While defending the Health Ministry's dealing of the outbreak, Vice Minister Ma also promised to investigate the alleged under-reporting of the number of sick.

The Health Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng should also commission an independent inquiry as to whether there is any cover-up of the SARS outbreak in Malaysia to ensure national and international confidence in its full transparency on the new killer virus as the Ministry's handling of the SARS outbreak in the first three weeks after the WHO global alert on March 12 and the history of its handling of other epidemics in the country are not calculated to inspire public confidence.

If the Health Ministry had right from the start taken pro-active measures and created a nation-wide SARS alert and awareness with full, accurate and timely information to the public, and not indulged in a denial syndrome chanting "Malaysia is SARS-free" for three weeks, suddenly announcing 59 suspected SARS cases after the Cabinet meeting of April 2, Malaysia would not be in the criticial SARS situation today - whether in terms of the disease outbreak or public credibility.

The Star today reported that the Penang Medical Practitioners' Society president Dr. Lim Boon Sho has advised its members to protect themselves with N95 face masks amid concerns of possible spread of SARS by Malaysian workers returning home from Singapore with the closure of factories and to escape the virus there.

He said "Doctors are very vulnerable as we are in the first line of defence" and urged general practitioners, even in rural areas, to don face masks when treating fever cases and pose the foremost question of whether the patient had been outstation or travelled overseas.

Dr. Lim had raised a very pertinent question concerning not only doctors but also the public, and in this case, whether patients going to hospitals and clinics should wear face masks as hospitals and clinics are the most vulnerable places in the SARS outbreak - a matter which the authorities concerned should give immediate and proper guidance and advice.

The global death toll from SARS have reached at least 112, with 55 in China, 31 in Hong Kong, 10 in Canada, nine in Singapore, four on Vietnam, two in Thailand and one in Malaysia, with nearly 3,000 people in some 28 countries in five continents infected by the new killer virus.

The worsening national and international crisis precipitated by the SARS outbreak could be gauged from the following developments:

  • JP Morgan Chase & Co has cut its forecast for Malaysia's economic growth for the second time in less a month, joining other brokerages that have slashed forecasts because of falling exports and the SARS outbreak - to 3.5 per cent, from 4.2 per cent earlier. Economists and analysts believe that SARS will have a greater impact on the Malaysian economy as opposed to the Iraq war, as the virus outbreak threatens to cause a slump in tourism, Malaysia's second largest foreign exchange earner, and undermine consumer spending.

  • Cancellation of the ASEAN Finance Ministers' Meeting which was to be followed by a meeting with their counterparts from Japan, China and South Korea in Manila on April 25 and 26, after the cancellation of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) working group meeting in Pattaya this week.

  • No signs of slow-down of SARS spread particularly in Southeast Asia and the warning by a U.S. expert, Dr Jim Hughes, head of infectious diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that SARS was probably in Asia to stay.

In this connection, the Utusan Malaysia report today of the Health Ministry's daily SARS briefing, with the headline "Kaum Cina paling ramai disyaki hidap SARS" is a matter of grave concern, as it gives the false impression that the new killer virus is selective and discriminative in ethnic terms, lowering the guard of all Malaysians against SARS. The death of the Italian World Health Organisation (WHO) expert, Dr. Carlo Urbani in Thailand, the Finnish International Labour Organisation (ILO) expert, Pekka Aro in Beijing and the latest case of the American English-teacher James Salisbury in Hong Kong from SARS should dispel any false and dangerous notion that SARS is basically confined to any particular community or group.

In the worst dengue epidemic which is still raging on, Malays represent the biggest ethnic group among the dengue fatalities, but Utusan Malaysia has not carried any headline report highlighting the high incidence of Malays among the dengue fatalities. The media should exercise greater care in their reporting.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman