Lack of screening of illegal workers handling food may be cause of KL typhoid outbreak: Minister

Restaurant workers washing plates and utensils in the back lane.
Restaurant workers washing plates and utensils in the back lane. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Illegal immigrants working as food handlers in Kuala Lumpur are being looked at as the possible cause for the rise in typhoid cases in the Malaysian capital.

The disease, which is more commonly seen in rural areas, has seen a spike in the city, and the Health Ministry is rushing to find the source of the infection.

A total of 32 cases have been reported in Kuala Lumpur since August, said Deputy Health Minister Hilmi Yahya.

"The problem may lie with illegal workers who are not medically screened at all and they may be carriers of the disease," Deputy Health Minister Hilmi Yahya said.

He said that while foreign workers had to undergo Fomema medical screening before being certified for employment, illegal workers were not subjected to compulsory anti-typhoid injections.

"We are still investigating to determine the source and carriers of the disease," he said at the lobby of the Parliament building yesterday.

Datuk Seri Hilmi said there was a mix of locals and foreigners who had contracted the disease.

The Health Ministry has urged the public not to panic over the emergence of typhoid in the Klang Valley.

Health Minister S. Subramaniam said the situation was under control, with the relevant authorities taking the appropriate action.

He advised the public to take steps to ensure personal hygiene and not to consume food or eat at dodgy places.

He also said that typhoid was initially detected here among foreign workers.

"The important thing is typhoid fever is treatable and we have enough vaccines," said Datuk Seri Subramaniam.

Typhoid fever is caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi and is spread by eating food or water contaminated with excreta from an infected person.

In a statement on Monday, Health Ministry director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah said that the Kuala Lumpur Health Department had recorded seven cases of typhoid fever in the first week of August.

According to Datuk Noor Hisham, those affected were labourers living in Cheras and who worked in the city centre.

Since then, more cases have been reported. As of Oct 18, the number of cases stands at 32.

Titiwangsa recorded the most cases with 16, followed by Kepong (eight), Lembah Pantai (four) and Cheras (eight).

No deaths have been reported.

"The Kuala Lumpur Health Department is conducting an epidemiology investigation to determine the reasons behind the infection.

"On-the-ground checks are not able to surmise the reason behind the infection and also the type of food taken because there were no similarities in those cases," he said.

An operation room has been set to coordinate investigations and monitor activities.

More than 37 contract workers as well as their families, colleagues as well as food vendors have been monitored, while 24 food premises have been checked.

"Seventy-nine faeces samples and four drinking water samples have been taken to identify the presence of the bacteria. So far, none of the samples were reported positive for Salmonella typhii.

"Checks are also being done at ice distributor factories. Besides that, surveillance and control activities involving water supply systems have been conducted to ensure the water quality in Kuala Lumpur is good."

Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) meanwhile has been giving local and foreign food handlers - with or without documentation, - typhoid injections to stop the spread of the disease, its health and environment department director Dr Hayati Abdullah said.

DBKL had also set up counters for workers to get typhoid injections in selected areas.

"In places where there are more than 40 workers who need the shots, we will send a team to handle it. This includes places like hotels and areas with clusters of restaurants and stalls," she said.

"We will continue with the immunisation exercise in addition to our usual operations at food outlets in the city," she said.

Dr Hayati said those handling food were required to undergo typhoid immunisation under the Food Handlers Bylaws of 1979.

"Typhoid injections are compulsory for those dealing with food. They only have to get a shot once every three years," she said, adding it only cost RM21 per injection.

She said those who fail to comply would be fined.

Selangor health, welfare, women and family affairs executive councillor Daroyah Alwi stressed the importance of one simple practice for workers involved in food preparation at all eateries - washing their hands with liquid soap after using the washroom - as a prevention against water-borne diseases such as typhoid.

"It is the most effective and inexpensive method to prevent diseases," Dr Daroyah said.

Petaling Jaya City Council health and environment department director Chitra Davi N. Vadivellu said the council's health inspectors had been told to heighten their checks at all eateries.

Many on social media see a relaxed attitude towards health and safety standards for hawkers and restaurants as a factor in the sudden spike in typhoid fever cases.

Facebook user Tantty Ali said employers were to blame for not taking their workers' health seriously.

"Pay them so low, cram them into accommodation that's not fit for human beings, of course this will be the result. We reap what we sow," said Tantty.

Sharon Sidhu said that the poor immigration controls in Malaysia has contributed to the spike in typhoid cases.

"This is what happens when there is absolutely no control over who enters this country. Free for all. What are the policy makers and health specialists doing?"

Thiru Senthan questioned how foreign workers infected with typhoid can pass through the system.

"No medical check or history? No vaccination?" he asked.

Annathambi Akka expressed concern over the other diseases that may be entering Malaysia through foreigners.

"Diseases that were considered eradicated like tuberculosis, leprosy, and so many others are carried into our nation," he said.

"The incubation period for leprosy cases, for example, runs to eight years and just imagine what will happen in 2025," he added.

"I haven't heard of typhoid fever in Malaysia for a very long time. The level of hygiene in food handling and preparation has been compromised," said Facebook user Napsiah Wan Salleh.

Sashi Varman said hawkers and restaurants should not put their customers at risk by opting not to vaccinate their workers.

"I'm a baker and I make it a point to renew my typhoid jabs every three years," said Lyn Tan on The Star Online's Facebook page.

"I find it disgusting how people can be so ignorant on important things like making sure their staff are properly vaccinated."