DAP memo calling on Mahathir to suspend Chua Jui Meng and Ong Ka Ting as Health and Housing/Local Government Ministers for their failure to heed the July WHO warning and take effective anti-dengue counter measures, resulting in the loss of over 40 lives in the past 6 months as well as the misinformation campaign lulling Malaysians into complacency about the lethal outbreak

Media Conference Statement
Lim Kit Siang

(Penang, Thursday): DAP will send a memorandum to the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad calling for the suspension of Datuk Chua Jui Meng as Minister for Health and Datuk Ong Ka Ting as Minister for Housing and Local Government for their failure to heed the July World Health Organisation (WHO) warning and take effective anti-dengue counter measures, resulting in the loss of over 40 lives in the past 6 months as well as the misinformation campaign lulling Malaysians into complacency about the lethal outbreak.

Last July, the WHO issued a warning from Geneva that 2002 was shaping up to be a bad year for dengue fever and urged governments and individuals to protect against the aedes mosquitoes which spread the infection.

Mike Nathan of WHO's department of communicable diseases said: "This year is looking a bit like 1998 when we had a pandemic. It's a very worrying picture". He added that a record 1.2 million cases of dengue fever were reported in 1998.

1998 was Malaysia's worst year for dengue, when there was a total of 27,379 dengue cases and 58 deaths.

According to data from the World Health Organisation, which are available on the Internet, the figures for "Dengue fever/dengue haemorrhagic fever cases and deaths" for Malaysia from 1991 to 2000 ( the data for 2001 are not available) are as follows:

Year               No. of cases               Deaths

1991                   6,628                          39
1992                   5,473                          24
1993                   5,615                          23
1994                   3,133                          13
1995                   6,543                          28
1996                 14,255                          30
1997                 19,544                          50
1998                 27,379                          58
1999                  10,008                           -
2000                    7,118                          37

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The first six months of last year already saw a sharp rise in the incidence of dengue fever in the country, which surged 31 per cent and claimed 11 lives as compared to the comparative period the previous year.

AFP of 22nd July 2002 reported 11 dengue deaths in the first six months which occurred in Perak, Selangor and Negri Sembilan. New Straits Times of 18th July 2002 quoted the Kuala Lumpur City Hall public relations officer Shariffuddin Ibrahim as reporting that the number of dengue cases in the city had increased four-fold in the first six months of the year with some 703 cases recorded.

In the six months in the second half of last year, over 40 people had succumbed to the aedes mosquitoes when their deaths could have been avoided or the toll minimized considerably if the authorities responsible had launched a high-impact media campaign latest by the time of the WHO warning in July to create a nation-wide alert and awareness about the return of the lethal disease.

On Monday, in response to my earlier statement the same day calling for the resignation of Chua Jui Meng as Health Minister for his inept handling of the virulent dengue outbreak, the parliamentary secretary to the Health Ministry, S. Sothinathan told the AFP that the dengue outbreak had so far claimed 54 lives last year, which was only four short of the worst dengue outbreak in 1998 which killed 58 or 43 more than the death toll of 11 in the first six months of last year.

This confirmed gross negligence on the part of the Health Minister. I have brought Ong Ka Ting into the picture, also calling for his suspension, as in one of his rare statements for the whole of last year on the virulent dengue outbreak two weeks ago, Chua was at pains to make the public aware that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government was equally responsible for the rise in dengue fever cases.

Speaking after representing the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi at the launch of the National Lion and Dragon Dance competition in Johore Bahru on 13th December 2002, Chua revealed that the Cabinet had instructed the two Ministries to "co-operate and co-ordinate all dengue prevention efforts". Chua in fact said that the Housing and Local Government Ministry had been "instructed to take all the primary prevention efforts since 72% of the cases are reported in areas under the jurisdiction of the ministry and its agencies"!

It is a national tragedy that an effective anti-dengue campaign and the lives of over 40 people should become the casualties not only of the inter-Ministry tussle under the departments headed by Chua and Ong but also the victims of the power play between the MCA Team A and Team B factions!

What is additionally most reprehensible is a deliberate pattern of misinformation lulling the people into complacency about the lethal dengue outbreak, when there should have been a high-impact media campaign to create full public awareness about the virulent dengue outbreak so that immediate help is sought in cases of fever (with or without rash), which could mean life or death for children, who suffered the most fatalities in the current outbreak

Although Sothinathan told AFP on Monday that the dengue outbreak had so far claimed 54 lives last year, this fact was not reported in any local press. In fact, in the past three days, the local media continued to report about 26 deaths from the dengue outbreak last year (13 in Selangor, 10 in Perak and 3 in Sarawak) - which was less than half of the actual fatalities. Berita Harian reports on Monday and Tuesday (including its Monday editorial titled "Bertindak segera elak demam denggi merebak") and the New Straits Times today in its report (p. 6) on "Ipoh City Council plans to eradicate dengue menace" continue to use the statistics of 26 deaths from the dengue outbreak last year.

One has to do a lot of sleuth work and very diligent and discerning reading in order to get a proper picture in the various states, especially as these reports are given very insignificant coverage tucked away in obscure corners, such as the NST report yesterday of 979 dengue cases and four deaths in Sarawak as of 30th December last year as compared to 455 cases the previous year and the obscure NST report today of 2,346 dengue cases and 20 deaths in Johore last year.

Among the other states which had reported deaths from the dengue outbreak last year were Kuala Lumpur (4 -end of August: NST 13.9.02), Negri Sembilan (5 - end of December: Utusan Malaysia 27.12.02) and Kelantan (1 - Berita Harian 31.12.02).

Both Chua and Ong should explain why there is a systematic campaign of misinformation to mislead Malaysians about the seriousness of the overall national picture of the dengue outbreak and the failure of the authorities to give regular, true and accurate information about the dengue outbreak nation-wide, which is the most vital element in any national dengue alert and meaningful anti-dengue strategy.

Sothinathan's revelation to AFP that in 2001, Malaysia had posted 50 deaths from the dengue outbreak is a "shocker", for it is not public knowledge that the dengue outbreak in 2001 was so serious as to claim 50 lives, making it together with 1997 as the second worst dengue year for the country in terms of death toll - another example of the lack of openness and transparency in the anti-dengue campaign.

We still do not have the true figures of the total number of dengue cases last year and the final death toll as to whether the number of deaths from dengue last year was even higher than the 58 death toll for the worst dengue year in 1998.

The Prime Minister should establish a high-powered inquiry, involving the Malaysian Medical Association (which had strangely been most silent during the whole period of the dengue outbreak last year), as to how the government could have committed such colossal blunders in the anti-dengue campaign failing to heed the WHO warning in July so as to save lives and minimize the toll of more than 40 lives in the second half of last year.

Malaysians must be assured that these irresponsibilities and incompetence would not be repeated as the number of dengue cases are expected to rise in the first half of the new year because of the forecast for warmer weather over the period. With higher temperatures, mosquitoes multiply much faster and bite more frequently, thus increasing the chances of transmission of the dengue virus, from person to person.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman