GUA MUSANG, Kelantan: The Orang Asli village in Kuala Koh – where 14 people died and 50 were warded for respiratory complications – has been cordoned off while the authorities identify the exact cause of their illness.
Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad said on Monday (Jun 10) that those affected were most possibly suffering from a secondary viral infection, but tuberculosis and leptospirosis have been ruled out.
“There is a manganese mine in the area, and lung disease could be one of the illnesses caused by mining,” he said during a press conference at the Gua Musang Hospital.
Those in the village, a Batek indigenous tribe, said the deaths started since early May.
Postmortem on two of the deceased revealed that they had died from pneumonia.
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department P Waytha Moorthy said it is the culture of people in this nomadic tribe to leave their community when they become gravely sick.
For this outbreak, those who died when they were on the move were buried in the forest, he added.
“They have given a list of names to us. There were 14 deaths in total, including the two (on which postmortem was performed),” he said.
The police will on Tuesday start to locate the graves of the 12 Orang Asli who were buried in the jungle.
Once located, the bodies will be exhumed and taken to Gua Musang Hospital for autopsy, said Bukit Aman Internal Security and Public Order Department director Acryl Sani Abdullah Sani.
“As long as the bodies remain unfound, we will not be able to learn the cause of their deaths,” he told reporters.
The 50 patients, including one in the intensive care unit, are adults, children and babies. Forty-seven others received outpatient treatment.
They were suffering from cough, fever and breathing difficulties.
"We are looking for the reason why there are so many deaths," said Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Monday.
"There may be an infection of one type of disease but at this time we do not know what type of disease has caused their deaths."
Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said on Sunday that the government is investigating allegations of water pollution, promising stern action against the culprits if the deaths were confirmed to be caused by contamination of the community’s water source.
TOO EARLY TO SAY WHETHER MINING WAS RESPONSIBLE: KELANTAN CHIEF MINISTER
Kelantan chief minister Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah, meanwhile, said on Monday that the state government was checking with the Lands and Mines Office on whether any mining activities were approved in the settlement.
He added that it was too early to say that the disease was caused by mining activities.
The state health department decided to cordon off the settlement to keep the situation under control.
Its director Zaini Hussin said the illness is likely to be a respiratory disease. "We do not want it to spread, so we have to restrict movement in the area,” he said, adding that those entering the village must don personal protective equipment.
Meanwhile, Dr Dzulkefly said he noted symptoms of malnourishment among the warded villagers during his visit to the hospital, while some were found to be unvaccinated.
Immediate follow-up action is needed, he added.