Measles outbreak among Orang Asli in remote Malaysia catches national attention

KUALA LUMPUR - The Malaysian government is expected to remove a "red zone" status in a remote district in Kelantan peopled by a tribe of the aboriginal Orang Asli next week, following the deaths of 15 people there in a case that has caught national attention.

While often forgotten in national conversations about race and poverty, the deaths this year from what was claimed to be a "mysterious" illness have brought several federal Cabinet ministers rushing to the area in recent weeks, including Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Ismail.

The remote outpost in Gua Musang district, about six hours by car from capital Kuala Lumpur, is populated by the Bateq tribe and had been largely closed to the public for nearly a month.

Officials have since determined that a measles outbreak in Kampung Kuala Koh was the main cause of the deaths, with members of the tribe afflicted with respiratory-related illnesses.

A total of 116 cases infecting the community has been recorded since June 2, with 37 confirmed cases of measles.

Kelantan health director Zaini Hussin said health officers have started administering vaccines to the nomadic community.

"If the positive situation persists, we will advise the authorities to lift the (red zone) status," he was quoted as saying by national news wire Bernama on Tuesday (July 2).

"It is to ensure that all residents in the affected areas receive optimum immunisation," he added.

One of Malaysia's poorest communities who mostly live at the edge of forests in Peninsular Malaysia, the Orang Asli refers to the "Original People" of the Malay peninsula.

They comprise about 215,000 Orang Asli from 18 tribes, or just under 1 per cent of Malaysia's total population of 32 million, a tiny community that is often neglected in government programmes.

But the deaths in Kampung Kuala Koh had prompted several top ministers to trek to the area, including Domestic Trade Minister Saifuddin Nasution, National Unity Minister P. Waytha Moorthy and Water, Land and Natural Resources Minister Xavier Jayakumar.

Their visits were also seen as a move by the Pakatan Harapan ministers to show up the Kelantan state government, which is controlled by opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia that has been accused of neglecting the Orang Asli community.

Furthermore, Gua Musang is the electoral constituency of Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a veteran leader of opposition party Umno.

"They were healthy and contented seven to 10 years ago… But with their land slowly taken away by the Kelantan government since 10 to 12 years ago and their resources destroyed, they were forced to move into the northern edge of Taman Negara (national park)," Centre for Orang Asli Concerns executive director Colin Nicholas was quoted as saying by New Straits Times daily.

"Without access to their traditional way of life, they become malnourished and underweight… With their resistance being low, many diseases - whether it's pneumonia or tuberculosis, or even diarrhoea - can be fatal. But the root cause is that their environment has been taken away," he added.

Their small numbers and villages that are mostly located away from mainstream society have meant that the Orang Asli had, over the decades, been pitted against logging and palm oil companies who encroach into forested areas where they forage for a living.

But the deaths of 15 Bateq tribe members have sparked a national outrage, with many calling for immediate government intervention.

Though a measles outbreak was determined as the main culprit, low immunisation coverage and malnourishment were also to blame.

Deputy Health Minister Lee Boon Chye said on June 21 that the ministry was worried about the level of malnourishment among the Orang Asli, especially children aged five and below.

"It is one of the contributing factors that led to the deaths of the Kampung Kuala Koh Orang Asli in Kelantan," he said.