Jul 29, 10 | 10:53am
There is an apparent gag order on statistics on a disease endemic to Sarawak, which is said to be afflicting workers at the Bakun Hydroelectric Dam.
According to an official from the Sarawak Health Department, a directive this month from a high-ranking government officer barred the release of any information on melioidosis.
"We were instructed by (the senior official) not to release any information starting this month, although we have not done so for several months now," she said when contacted, adding that she cannot disclose the reason.
However, Ministry of Health Director General Ismail Merican (left) said that he is "not aware of" such a directive.
Another officer at the state's Communicable Disease Control department also claimed ignorance on the matter , saying that information can only be released upon written request.
The disease recently caught public attention when six died, stricken by melioidosis and leptospirosis (cause by bacteria in rat urine) infection after taking part in a search and rescue operation for a victim of drowning in Lubuk Yu, Pahang on July 10.
This prompted the closure of the recreational area and a subsequent clean-up operation there by various government departments.
Malaysiakini contacted the Sarawak Health Department to obtain statistics on the disease after receiving claims of its prevalence among Bakun dam construction workers.
Bakun project: Nine dead, 50 infected
According to a management personnel for one of the dam's subcontractors, a number of workers had contracted the disease since the project began.
The officer who requested anonymity, spoke to Malaysiakini to express concern over the apparent trend. He knows of nine workers who died from the disease in the past year.
However, he estimates that 50 workers from his company had recovered from the disease after receiving treatment within the same period.
Most of the workers are foreigners and would be sent home even after recovering as the company does not want the risk of re-infection. A relapse can occur at any point in a person's life, even after adequate treatment.
To his knowledge, his employer has sent home 10 workers for that reason in the past year.
At the same time, he said that he is aware of some workers who were sent home in dire condition because the companies no longer wanted anything to do with them.
"The workers who died did not receive treatment at the early stages because they did not report the illness, possibly because they were afraid of being sent back," he said.
The workers are likely to have been directly exposed to the bacteria during ground drilling.
"I am concerned that this will continue to be the case at the Murum dam," he said.
Two currently in intensive care
He added that two people are currently admitted to the Bintulu Hospital intensive care unit (ICU), including a resident of Belaga who is part of the community displaced by the dam.
A medical personnel at the hospital's ICU confirms that one of the patients had been admitted for 38 days and the other for 26.
Experts researching the disease have claimed that available statistic may be unreliable due to underreporting, as melioidosis is currently not a notifiable disease.
Besides Lubuk Yu, incidences have been reported in other areas of Peninsular Malaysia including Johor Bahru and Kuala Lumpur.
Symptoms of melioidosis may include pains in the chest, bones, or joints, cough, skin infections, lung nodules and pneumonia.
It can be diagnosed via blood screening and is treated using antibiotics. Without treatment, chances of mortality can exceed 90 percent.
According to the Sarawak Health Department statistics, there were 353 government hospital admissions and seven deaths in the state from 2002 to 2004.
However, from 2004 till 2006, only 16 cases were investigated by the health offices, eight of them by the Kapit Divisional Health Office, out of which five were related to the Bakun dam project.
Malaysiakini has written to the department for the latest statistics.