Sun, Jun 15, 2008 - Page 5 News List

Indonesian policy of withholding bird flu data sparks worries

AP , BITUNG, INDONESIA

Ali Usman’s wife died of bird flu 10 days ago, but the government has yet to notify next-of-kin about the cause. He searches for answers in newspapers, which until recently reported aggressively on deaths linked to the virus, but finds nothing.

That’s because Indonesia has stopped publicizing fatalities immediately, part of a campaign to shift focus instead to successes in battling the disease in the hardest hit nation. The Health Ministry said on Friday it would start announcing deaths on a monthly basis — not several times a year as earlier implied — clearly spelling out its new strategy for the first time.

Health workers and residents said the government’s information slowdown had left them confused and frustrated. It took The Associated Press a week to track down and confirm the June 3 death of Usman’s wife, Susi Lisnawati, which raised the country’s toll to 110.

Though Lisnawati was suffering from classic symptoms of the disease — breathing difficulties, coughing and high fever — the 34-year-old was not kept in isolation during her two days of hospitalization. Family members said they gave her a traditional Muslim burial, washing and shrouding the body with their bare hands, before placing it in the ground without a casket.

“I’m terribly scared, I need to know what the test results were,” Usman, a 44-year-old tailor and father of three. “How else can I protect my family?”

The WHO, which has been engaged in a bitter yearlong dispute with Indonesia over the sharing of virus samples, said Indonesian Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari promised to keep it informed about new deaths and did not appear to be violating international health regulations with her new policy.

But for now, the lack of transparency has forced people to rely on word of mouth and rumors.

Relatives of victims are still supposed to be shown official bird flu test results almost immediately and Usman’s case may have been an aberration.

But when asked for an explanation on Friday, the Health Ministry said test results had come back negative and would be delivered to the family soon.

Nyoman Kandun, a senior ministry official, later confirmed the tests came back positive.

Neighbors, too, were confused after seeing bird flu investigators visit Usman’s house, taking blood samples from family members and handing out the anti-flu drug Tamiflu, but only to his youngest son and a child living next door. Residents were asked if they had backyard fowl.

In the past, they too would have turned to the media for information if official notification was slow in coming.

Gusti Ngurah Mahardika, a virologist at Udayana University on Bali island, said yesterday the decision to announce deaths monthly instead of several times a year was welcome news.

But he urged the government to go further, releasing information immediately, as it did up until May 1.

Supari defended her new policy on reporting deaths last week, saying the focus now should be on positive steps taken by the government to combat bird flu.

She pointed to a “declining trend” in cases, with at least 18 people infected in the first six months of this year, down from 27 during the same period last year and 35 in 2006.

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