10,000 sick in Indonesia due to haze

By Rizal Harahap | Source: The Jakarta Post
The heavy smog, which has been engulfing Riau, Indonesia for the past few weeks, may have started to fade but the region’s problems are not yet over as the disaster has left an estimated 10,382 residents suffering from acute respiratory infections (ARIs).

About half the patients were reportedly children under five years of age, the Riau Health Agency said on Monday.

Head of Disease Control and Environmental Health at the agency, Tengku Zul Effendi, said the number may increase further as the aforementioned figure only covered eight of the 12 regencies and cities across Riau.

Indragiri Hulu regency recorded the highest number of cases with 2,863 ARI patients, followed by Dumai (1,554); Bengkalis (1,438); Siak (1,183); Meranti (1,115); Pelalawan (1,017); Pekanbaru (920), and Rokan Hulu (292).

“This is not the final figure since several of the worst-hit regions, including Rokan Hilir, have yet to submit their data,” said Zul.

The rise in the number of people suffering from ARIs has been relentless since June 18, 10 days after the haze started to blanket the province.

“This number really raises our concerns. Parents need to keep their children indoors while the haze is still around,” Zul added.

The haze has also triggered asthma attacks among 699 people and pneumonia among 708 others. “Some of them have had to be hospitalised due to their severe conditions,” he went on.

As many as 538 people have also suffered skin irritations, while 622 have had eye irritations.

“A mixture of haze and post-fire dust residue has contributed to skin and eye irritations. These are relatively minor diseases and are directly due to the smog. But they have to be treated immediately to prevent further infections,” Zul said, adding that the administration would pay for the treatment costs of all patients who suffered haze-related illnesses.

“Treatment will be free as long as the state of emergency status is still in force in Riau. We are trying to provide immediate assistance and treatment to patients,” he added.

So far, the agency has distributed 120,000 masks across 12 regencies and cities since the haze hit the province, as well as providing an additional 170,000 masks.

Land and forest fires have for years been a major problem for Riau as smallholders and plantation firms allow slash-and-burn farming methods. Former National Police detectives chief Comr. Gen. (ret.) Ito Sumardi, who led the Riau Police between 2005 and 2006, said several agricultural firms usually ordered their contractors to clear their land.

In Riau itself, hundreds of people were evacuated, while several flights were cancelled as the haze severely hampered visibility.

In some regions like Dumai and Bengkalis, the air quality index reached more than 600 on the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI). Under normal conditions, the PSI range is between zero and 50; above 300 is considered hazardous. The fires have also reportedly claimed the lives of two Bengkalis residents.

Haze also blanketed the neighbouring island of Batam and caused authorities to apply a flight ban.

The fires have also sparked a diplomatic war of words between Indonesia, as the source of the haze, and Singapore and Malaysia, as the countries experiencing the smog.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono apologised to both countries for the record levels of pollution and told his officials to accelerate efforts to combat the severe haze through cloud seeding and water bombing.

The fire-fighting measures were showing signs of progress on Monday with the Meteorology, Geophysics and Climatology Agency’s (BMKG) Pekanbaru office sighting only four hot spots in Riau; a significant decrease from the previous 17 spots sighted on Saturday.

Two hot spots were seen in Siak, while the others were found in Rokan Hulu and Rokan Hilir, respectively. “The Pollutant Standards Index has returned to normal. The only alarming area is Duri in Bengkalis, which is showing a level of 166,” said task force commander Brig. Gen. Teguh Rahardjo on Monday.