Activist points to starvation as culprit in Orang Asli deaths

Orang Asli seek treatment at Kampung Kuala Koh in Gua Musang, Kelantan. (Bernama pic)

KUALA LUMPUR: An Orang Asli rights activist has rejected the theory that the low rate of vaccination in the Batek community of Gua Musang was the primary cause of recent deaths from measles.

Those who died had been starved of nutrition and therefore could not survive the disease, said Tijah Yok Chopil, who leads the Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Semenanjug Malaysia activist group.

Tijah told FMT measles was common among the Bateks and they once were able to survive various strains of it because they were healthy.

“Low awareness of vaccination wasn’t the cause of their death,” she said, contesting the explanation given by the health ministry.

Referring to Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye’s statement that the Bateks’ nomadic lifestyle made it difficult for health officers to give their children immunisation jabs, she said the ministry seemed to be saying they should do nothing but wait in their homes to be immunised.

“They have to move around to look for food. They cannot be sitting at home wondering when the health officers will come by to offer jabs.

“You think that by getting vaccinated they will suddenly become nourished again? They were already at the brink of dying from starvation,” she said

Tijah Yok Chopil.

Tijah said the Bateks had been forced to live a nomadic life because their customary land had been taken away from them.

“They have nowhere to plant crops. That’s why they leave their homes to look for food.”

She said a typical meal for the Bateks nowadays was white rice with boiled oil palm fruit, although sometimes they would have salted fish sent to them by people from other communities.

She accused the government of being lax in its duty of addressing the plight of Orang Asli communities.

“There can be endless suggestions but what’s the point if these suggestions are not realised?

“The most important thing to do right now is to sort out the customary land matters. All the government has to do is amend and iron out the laws.

“But that needs political will. If the government is serious about it, it would have done it already,” she said.

Lee recently acknowledged that the lack of nutrients was “among the factors” causing the spread of measles in the Gua Musang village of Kuala Koh.

He said the government would be expanding the food programme for schools to cover the distribution of food supplements to Orang Asli communities.

He also said the health ministry was studying ways to improve the coverage of its immunisation programme.