'Why would we cover up cases?': Indonesia's front-line hospital defends coronavirus policies

Dr Muhammad Syahril, director of Sulianti Saroso Hospital, gestures as he talks during an interview at his office in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Feb 28, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (REUTERS) - Indonesia has the resources to cope with a coronavirus outbreak, the director of its leading infectious diseases hospital said, defending detection procedures in the South-east Asian nation of more than 260 million, where no cases have been reported.

The world's fourth most-populous nation has tested only 141 suspected cases, a small figure for its population, sparking concern among some medical professionals of a lack of vigilance and a risk of undetected cases.

Neighbouring Malaysia has reportedly run about 1,000 tests, and Britain more than 10,000.

"We can't doubt our skills and the facts we gather," said Dr Muhammad Syahril, director of the Sulianti Saroso hospital in Jakarta, the capital, when asked why Indonesia had detected no cases.

"If we don't have cases, we don't have cases," he said in an interview at the hospital last Friday (Feb 28). "Why would we cover it up?"

The virus has infected nearly 87,000 people globally and killed almost 3,000, the majority in China, spreading to more than 60 countries.

Sulianti Saroso is Indonesia's main hospital for handling suspected virus cases, among 135 designated for the task.

Indonesia's efforts have included screening the temperatures of arrivals at airports and advising that any who later become unwell should contact health authorities.

The hospital offers 11 isolation rooms for patients with symptoms such as pneumonia, Dr Syahril said, adding that three people were being treated, while 21 were in isolation before testing negative.

Sulianti Saroso hospital in Jakarta, Indonesia, has 11 isolation rooms for patients with symptoms such as pneumonia. PHOTO: REUTERS

The hospital was ready to tackle any outbreak, armed with experience gained in handling diseases such as the 2003-2004 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), he said.

A health ministry official previously told Reuters that some hospitals, particularly in eastern Indonesia, had smaller capacity to handle virus cases.

But even in Jakarta, not all best practices appear to be followed, and a recent visit to another hospital revealed some nurses without masks, despite attending to a patient with fever.

'Blessing from the Almighty'

Fuelling concern about Indonesia's vulnerability, four infections were confirmed in travellers who had spent time there, including a Japanese national living in Malaysia and one returning to New Zealand from Iran via the resort island of Bali.

Indonesian physician Shela Putri Sundawa worries that screening could miss potential carriers without symptoms.

"When people have travel or contact history, but they only have issues with coughing or minor fever, they'll just be monitored," she said, calling for tighter surveillance.

Tests were run when doctors determined that symptoms pointed "to that direction", Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto said last week.

"Imagine if everybody who had a cough or flu was checked, then millions would be checked," he said, adding that it was "a blessing from the Almighty" that no cases had been found.

Tests are done at a Jakarta laboratory run by the health ministry, but Dr Sundawa said samples from outside the capital could take too long to arrive for optimal results.

Tests should also be cross checked with overseas laboratories accredited by the World Health Organisation to dispel quality concerns, Mr Arsul Sani, the vice-chairman of the upper house of Parliament, told Reuters.

The health ministry declined to comment but said its laboratory was accredited by the WHO.

Indonesia's lack of confirmed cases "may suggest the potential for undetected cases", researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the United States said in a study this month.

They pointed to its direct air links with China's central city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.

Indonesia has barred entry to visitors who have been in China for 14 days and stopped flights.

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