KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad confirmed on Monday (Jun 17) that there is a measles outbreak among the Batek Orang Asli community in Kelantan, where 15 deaths have been reported.
In a statement, Dr Dzulkefly said 37 people out of 112 who have been sick had tested positive for measles as of Saturday.
"However, tests for tuberculosis, melioidosis, leptospirosis and the coronavirus came back negative. Based on the test results, (we can say that) the Kampung Kuala Koh Orang Asli community is facing a measles outbreak," he said.
Dr Dzulkefly attributed the measles outbreak to low rates of immunisation within the indigenous community.
Only 61.5 per cent of the tribe members received the first dose of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccination, while 30 per cent received the second dose.
"We face difficulty in providing healthcare services to the Batek tribe because of their nomadic lifestyle. Malnutrition is another reason that leads to risks of infection and complications," the minister added.
Usually, the fatality rate would be less than one per cent but it could be higher if the patient was malnourished, he said.
The village was cordoned off while the authorities tried to identify the exact cause of their illness.
An earlier postmortem on two of the deceased revealed that they had died from pneumonia.
On Sunday, a toddler died in hospital on Sunday, increasing the death toll to 15.
The cause of the toddler's death is pneumonia complicated by measles, the ministry said on its Facebook page.
Some had suggested that manganese mining activities or water pollution may have been the cause of their illness. This was later debunked by the authorities.
READ: Outbreak in Orang Asli village in Kelantan not associated with mining activity: DPM Wan Azizah
The authorities later mobilised an operation to locate the remains of the 12 deceased, who were laid to rest in the jungle after they died while on the move.
It is the nomadic tribe’s culture to venture far from home when they become seriously ill.
As of Sunday, all 12 bodies have been exhumed. The remains had been sent to the Gua Musang Hospital for further investigations into the cause of their death.
Last Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said the indigenous community was stricken with chronic health issues.
Their foraging area has become smaller, which led to them facing malnutrition, she added.
“They are also losing their source of income because of that."
AUTHORITIES TO STEP UP IMMUNISATION EFFORTS FOR ORANG ASLI
Going forward, the authorities will track down tribe members and give vitamin A to all children being treated for measles to boost their immune system.
At the same time, the authorities are also working on an immunisation drive for all Orang Asli people in the vicinity, providing health education, counselling sessions, ramping up infection prevention control among other measures, said Dr Dzulkefly.
Besides Kelantan, the health ministry has also asked other states to raise their measles infection surveillance and encourage Orang Asli communities to be vaccinated.
“Those in other states must alert the ministry immediately via the National Crisis Preparedness and Response Centre should there is case cluster or deaths displaying similar symptoms," he said.