Call for a special Cabinet Committee to be fully responsible to deal with the deadly SARS outbreak as Chua Jui Meng's mishandling of the worst dengue epidemic causing the most number of dengue deaths in the nation's history does not inspire public confidence

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Penang,  Thursday): New Straits Times today carried a scoop on the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in its Page 9 lead story headlined "Cabinet wants full report on SARS" which reported that the Cabinet had directed the Health Minister Datuk Chua Jui Meng to furnish a comprehensive report containing the latest statistics on the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) at the next Cabinet meeting.

The effect of this exclusive NST report is in sharp contrast to the laudatory reports in all the mass media a day earlier about the World Health Organisation (WHO)'s praise for the Malaysian government for its precautions against SARS.

On Tuesday, Chua made public a letter which the WHO acting representative for Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore Joel A Vanderburg had sent to the Health Ministry stating that WHO was "most impressed with the preparation made in the event that an outbreak should occur in Malaysia".

It would have been more meaningful and impressive if Chua could produce a WHO letter commending the Health Ministry for its response to the WHO global dengue alert last July and its handling of the worst dengue epidemic in the nation's history, causing the most number of dengue cases and fatalities, as it is rather premature for Chua to be patting himself on the back for the handling of the new deadly SARS viral outbreak which is at its early stages.

Malaysians are indeed grateful that so far there are no known cases of SARS, although at least 27 cases with symptoms akin to SARS had been reported and screened in the country - when the first two SARS deaths have been recorded in Singapore out of 74 cases identified in the island republic, leading to the quarantine of more than 700 people and the 11-day closure of all schools and junior colleges affecting about 600,000 students.

However, the Cabinet does not seem to be very impressed by the testimonial of the local WHO representative or it would not have directed the Health Minister to furnish "a comprehensive report containing the latest statistics on SARS at the next Cabinet meeting", which was also the agenda for the ministry's post-Cabinet meeting yesterday.

That the Cabinet had directed the Health Minister to submit a "comprehensive report" on SARS, which is an adverse reflection on Chua and a strong indication of Cabinet dissatisfaction with his report to date, is important news and should have been disclosed to all media at the first available opportunity. It is a further example of the "First World Infrastructure, Third World Mentality" prevalent in the higher echelons of the Cabinet and government that this information had to be ferreted out by enterprising journalists by way of a NST scoop.

Malaysia cannot be smug and complacent about the SARS outbreak as The Star and Sin Chew Daily today reported that 55 Malaysians are among 2,000 people being traced by health authorities worldwide after it was discovered they had stayed at Metropole Hotel in Mongkok, located in Waterloo Road Kowloon, where the atypical pneumonia outbreak was believed to have originated.

The guests had been in the hotel from Feb 18 to March 3 - a period in which officials believed they were exposed to the killer virus.

Three Malaysians stayed on the 9th floor of the hotel which was ground zero for the outbreak.

Hong Kong authorities said that the disease was brought into the territory by a Guangdong professor, who stayed on the 9th floor from Feb 21 to Feb 22. He had treated patients with the same disease in Guangzhou.

The 64-year-old doctor died on March 4. Three Singaporeans, two Canadians and an American-Chinese businessman who flew on to Hanoi, who all stayed on the ninth floor, and a 26-year-old Hong Kong airport worker who visited the ninth floor of the hotel were infected.

Except for the second Canadian, the guests sparked outbreaks of the SARS in their respective countries when they went back home. Two of them (the American and a Canadian) died.

Malaysian consul-general Abdul Aziz Harun has confirmed receiving the list of Malaysians, including the critical three who stayed on the 9th floor, from the Department of Health in Hong Kong and that it had been forwarded to the Health Ministry.

The Malaysians, including a tour group, came from states like Johore, Malacca, Negri Sembilan, Selangor and one who lives in Singapore.

Why hasn't Chua disclosed whether the Health Ministry has contacted all the 55 Malaysians on the list to screen and clear them of SARS, as the Health Ministry has received particulars of the critical three from the 9th floor last Friday and the full list on Monday.

Chua should learn from the worst dengue epidemic which is still raging in Malaysia and the SARS outbreak that the best policy in dealing with any public health threat is one of openness and transparency, and there should be no attempt to impose any media blackout or manipulate with health statistics.

China has come under severe international criticism over SARS, as yesterday the Chinese authorities officially reported a total of 792 cases and 31 deaths in an outbreak of atypical pneumonia, when they had previously reported a total of 305 cases and 5 deaths from 16 November to 9 February 2003.

The new figures cover the period of 16 November to 28 February, and affect seven cities of Guangdong Province.
According to the 10th WHO mult-country update on SARS issued yesterday, (, the new data from China bring the total number of reported probable cases worldwide, dating back to 16 November, to 1,323 cases and 49 deaths. (The global death toll should be 50, with another reported death in Singapore).

Chua has on his hands two major public health killers - the worst dengue epidemic in the nation's history and SARS.

DAP calls for a special Cabinet Committee to be fully responsible to deal with the deadly SARS outbreak as Chua's mishandling of the worst dengue epidemic causing the most number of dengue deaths in the nation's history does not inspire public confidence.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman