About 50 residents of several villages in Papua – mostly children younger than 5 – have died from diarrhea and other illnesses since April, church and other officials said, in a case reflecting a stark lack of health services in Indonesia’s easternmost province.
Maria Duwitau, a member of Papua’s parliament, cast blame on poor health services provided by the provincial government.
“If they already know that diarrhea comes every year, they should have prevention efforts, instead of blaming the community for not having hygienic habits,” she told BenarNews. “The health department should promote a hygienic and healthy way of life to the community.”
Diarrhea-related deaths occur every year in Papua, a deeply impoverished province, officials said. But the rash of cases reported in a handful of villages in Tigi, a district of Deiyai regency, and elsewhere in the province has been more frequent than usual, they said. It has been caused by people drinking from unclean water sources.
Apart from at least 50 deadly cases, hundreds of people in affected villages have been stricken with diarrhea over the past three months, officials said.
People can die of dehydration brought about by diarrhea, which drains the body of vital fluids and salts. It is a common killer of children age 5 and younger worldwide, contributing to the deaths of tens of thousands of boys and girls annually in Indonesia, according to UNICEF and NGOs working in public health.
Laurens Kadepa, another local parliamentarian, said four public health centers have been established across the western part of the district – where some of the deadly cases of diarrhea have occurred lately – but none are staffed with doctors. This, in turn, has discouraged residents of local villages from seeking medical services at those sites, he said.
“Since two years ago, there has been an attitude of public apathy toward the importance of health services,” Laurens told BenarNews.
Visits by doctors, church officials
Cultural practices have also been a factor, officials pointed out. Instead of proceeding to health centers, villagers often stay at home, praying for recovery while using traditional herbs, which, they believe, have healing powers.
According to the chief of the provincial health office, Aloysius Giyai, a medical team of doctors and nurses visited five villages in Deiyai – Ayatei, Digikotu, Piyakedimi, Yinudoba and Epanai – where the rash of diarrheal cases was reported.
“The team formed by the Papua Province’s Health Development Acceleration Unit, has been there since a few days ago to handle the case,” Aloysius told BenarNews last week.
Church officials visited several villages in Tigi district, after receiving reports from local officials that 30 infants had died in the area over the past three months, said Santon Tekege, a representative of the Catholic Church who is based here.
“After we checked the area, there were 50 deaths, including adults,” Santon told BenarNews.
The victims, who died within four days after the onset of symptoms, had experienced high fever, diarrhea, sore mouth and red eyes, he said, quoting data gathered by church representatives.
“According to medical officers, local residents showed symptoms of having acute respiratory infections, measles, diarrhea and dysentery,” Santon added.
Since June, dozens of residents have been admitted to hospitals and clinics in Merauke, another regency in Papua, after complaining of diarrhea, officials said. About 200 children younger than 5 and several adults were believed to be afflicted, they said.
“The teams from Puskesmas [community health clinics] have served some of the villages we could reach, while areas in difficult locations have not been reached yet,” said Adolf Bolang, chief of Merauke’s Health Service. He said 461 people have so far complained of diarrhea in three villages. Four toddlers died after suffering from dehydration, he told BenarNews.
Drinking dirty water and the non-existence of toilets could have precipitated the cases, he said.
In previous diarrhea reports in Papuan villages, Indonesian health officials identified consumption of dirty water as the cause. They said villagers traditionally used natural water ponds as their sources of drinking water, but these had been contaminated by human and animal feces.
Aloysius Giyai, Papua’s health chief, acknowledged services in Deiyai had often performed poorly on the province’s annual health assessment.
Papua’s overall health status is the lowest in Indonesia, officials said.
Papua, which is bordered by the nation of Papua New Guinea to the east, and by West Papua province to the west, is one of the Indonesia’s poorest regions and was absorbed by the country in 1963.
The sparsely populated Papua and West Papua have 5.9 million residents, a majority of whom are Christians. The mineral-rich region – home to the world’s largest copper and gold mines – is also where a low-level armed separatist movement has simmered for decades.
Papua’s adult literacy rate is the lowest among all of Indonesia’s provinces, standing at 74 percent, according to the website GlobalSecurity.org.
“The region also has a disproportionately high number of HIV/AIDS cases compared with the rest of Indonesia and high rates of infant and maternal mortality,” the website reported.