By Son Nguyen in HCMC
Hundreds of people in Quang Nam Province’s Ba To District have recently contracted a skin disease commonly referred to in local media as ‘weird disease’ and at least 21 people have died due to complications resulting in the malfunctions of internal organs. The disease broke out in April last year, as reported by the Ministry of Health, but it peaked a few weeks ago when the number of fatalities surged, submerging treatment efforts by the grassroots healthcare system.
Strangely enough, despite the widespread panic among the local people, despite repeated calls for help from local officials, and despite suggestions by international organizations to lend a helping hand, the Ministry of Health has done little to save lives. Groups of health officials and physicians are being sent by the ministry to the affected area, taking samples of blood, collecting insects, inspecting the environment, giving ambiguous remarks on the possible causes, and suggesting vague treatment methods while locals days in days out have to suffer from the painful disease and to witness their beloved relatives dying.
Says Lao Dong, in a sarcastic tone, “For the people of Ba To (District), this is a strange disease, but reactions from competent health authorities give the feeling that this illness is regular.”
Most of the cases have occurred in Reu Village of Ba Dien Commune where locals belong to a tribal group named H’re. The patient first feels itching in their skin, and then pustules and pimples with pus appear, especially in their hands and legs.
The panic is spreading in the community after as many as 20 medical missions have been dispatched to the affected zone, says Vietnamnet. Some medical groups have assumed that the disease could have been spread by a species of insect, or could have taken rooted in the moldy rice that tribespeople eat everyday as it contains a type of fungus, or it could be a type of leprosy. Upon the assumptions, insects are collected for analysis, and then officials warn locals against eating moldy rice. In a trip to the zone last week, the ministry’s officials and local authorities supplied white rice to the locals to prevent the disease.
Preliminary remarks from the health ministry regarding the disease contradict the reality.
Experts from the ministry say the disease is not a transmissible illness, but locals fear that it is highly contagious given the fact that several members of same families have been infected. Vietnamnet cites the case of Pham Van Tien’s family in Reu Village. Tien’s 20-year-old daughter Pham Thi Phin was infected in February, while her 19-year-old sister fell victim to the disease one week later. Other family members later also got ill with the same symptoms, including Tien’s wife and Phin’s husband. Phin died of the disease last month. Another typical case is Pham Van Day’s family in the same village as three of his children had been infected and two had died.
Pham Thi Nga, vice chairwoman of Ba Dien Commune, reveals in Vietnamnet that up to 93 families out of a 380 in the commune have been infected, and 14 families have all members infected.
Le Han Phong, chairman of Ba To District, rejects the assumption that food could be a source of infection. He says in Tuoi Tre that tribespeople in the locality have for centuries eaten moldy rice as part of their traditions. Phong says the people after harvesting paddy would not dry it, but store it while still fresh, and only process it into rice when needed.
“We are of the view that there must be an overall scientific approach to the disease, and (the ministry) should not blame rice as the root cause. Human lives cannot be ignored by lengthening the process,” the district chairman says in an interview in Tuoi Tre. He also criticizes that the ministry should not treat people as experimental objects.
Days later, a senior health official ruled out moldy rice as the cause.
Many papers criticize the health ministry for its foot-dragging approach, wondering why the ministry has not asked international organizations for help to pinpoint the cause. The ministry says that if the disease proves beyond local control, it will seek help from the World Health Organization. Sai Gon Tiep Thi questions ‘how beyond is beyond,’ and “how many more lives are lost and how many more people are infected until the ministry claims it to be beyond control.”
Chairman Phong of Ba To District reveals that he has petitioned central authorities to relocate the whole village to another place while looking for the cause, but has not received any response. In fact, the disease has existed in the area for three years, but “clearly we have been too slow,” says Phong in Tuoi Tre.
In a press meeting in Hanoi early this week after a field trip to Ba To, Health Ministry officials said they suspected the disease is caused by poisoning. Deputy Minister of Health Nguyen Thanh Long observed that the disease shows symptoms of poisoning on malnourished people, and has updated the treatment method, the third time this year the method is changed, according to Tien Phong. The meeting was also attended by representatives of WHO in Vietnam and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S., but reporters were advised by the ministry not to pose questions to them because they were not well-informed of the disease.
Scores of people in Ba To District are being rushed to hospitals and clinics these days as more and more people are getting infected. In the past two weeks, 53 more cases have been detected, says Sai Gon Tiep Thi. Despite such urgency, the ministry still keeps a wait-and-see attitude. Sources from WHO and the U.S. Embassy say to Sai Gon Tiep Thi their organizations are willing to help Vietnam, but they have not been asked to do so by the Health Ministry.
Over 200 people have been affected, at least 21 have succumbed to the ‘weird disease’ and dozens are now in critical condition at medical facilities. These numbers will rise further if the Health Ministry continues its snail’s pace in pinpointing the cause, says Lao Dong. Are the ministry’s reactions also showing that there exists a ‘weird disease’ in the way it performs its duty?
The Saigon Times Daily