Measles kill dozens of children in Papua, government sends military

Illustration malnutrition among Asmat children – IST

Jakarta, Jubi – Indonesian authorities are struggling to contain a months-long outbreak of measles in easternmost Papua province that has killed dozens of children.

Stefanus Lange, a doctor at a state-run hospital in Papua’s Asmat district, said Tuesday (January 16) that cases were first detected in September, but a lack of access to remote areas, insufficient personnel and the high mobility of villagers hampered treatment and vaccination efforts.

Lange said 36 victims died in Pulau Tiga sub-district and 22 died in Agats, the main town and capital of Asmat district. He did not rule out the possibility of a higher number of victims since reports have not been received from some sub-districts.

Papua and neighboring West Papua are the poorest provinces in Indonesia and home to a decades-old independence movement and armed insurgency. The region is culturally and ethnically distinct from the rest of Indonesia, which annexed it in the early 1960s.

Data from hospitals showed a total of 568 people had been treated for measles since September and 175 required hospitalizations.

The data also showed that one child died in Pulau Tiga of malnutrition, which has plagued some villages in the district.

More than 50 doctors and paramedics from Indonesia’s military have gone to Papua province to battle a measles outbreak that has killed dozens of children. They carry food and vaccines to a remote part of the area.

The Indonesian military has sent 53 personnel including paramedics, besides medical equipment, vaccines and 11,100 packages of instant food.

Map of Asmat Regency – IST

Malnutrition and slow response

“We are handling the situation,” Health Minister Nila Moeloek told Reuters, blaming similar previous incidents on several factors.

“There is a link between the malnutrition and (catching) other diseases,” Moeloek added. “If you’re undernourished, you will get those diseases.”

The ministry said it was still trying to estimate the number of deaths but daily newspaper Kompas on Monday said at least 61 infants had died.

Many Papuans, who are predominantly Christian and a minority in the Muslim-majority country, criticise the government in Jakarta for neglecting Papua and instead being too focused on the densely-populated island of Java.

Catholic priest and rights activist John Jonga, blamed the crisis on a lack of vaccinations and a switch from more nutritious tubers to rice as a staple food.

He said he had voiced questions over Widodo’s policy of sending aid to Palestine and Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, rather than to Papua at a recent seminar at the Indonesia Institute of Sciences in Jakarta, the capital.

“We are lacking health facilities,” Jonga said. “That’s why in the seminar I asked why the president was busy with Myanmar and building a hospital in Gaza. Whereas in Papua, we have problems, difficulties with drugs and medical workers.”

Head of Communication and Community Services Bureau of Health Ministry – IST

One minister denied the extent of the health crisis had taken the government by surprise.

“We have anticipated this since September 2017,” Puan Maharani, the coordinating minister for human development, told reporters.

“The location in Asmat is not easy to monitor. We have asked the health ministry to coordinate for this (health crisis) to be evaluated.”

But as reported by Aljazeera (December 17), Oscar Primadi, Head of Communication and Community Services Bureau of Health Ministry has admitted it has been too slow to respond to a health crisis in the eastern province of Papua.

“But we need to focus on how we have to deal it right now,” he said to reporter.(AP/Reuters/Aljazeera/Zely A)