Hog Hell

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DAVID LIEBHOLD Kuala LumpurNight after night, Mrs. Param sleeps on the hospital floor. She hasn't left the building for more than a week. Her husband is delirious, talking nonsense about a way of life that ended with the outbreak of a deadly virus in the pig-farming town of Bukit Pelandok on Malaysia's west coast. This morning he woke up and said 'I have to go and fetch corn for the pigs,' she says, huddling in a crowded waiting room of Seremban Hospital. When I see him I feel pain in my heart. That pain is being felt by hundreds of Malaysians--and the crisis is far from over. As the death toll reached 58 last Wednesday, the government finally declared a national emergency. With the count at 63 three days later, at least 18 of those victims had succumbed to Japanese encephalitis, or JE, a mosquito-borne virus that is typically transmitted to humans via pigs and that kills up to 10,000 Asians each year. More disturbing, the Ministry of Health confirmed by Friday that 12 people were infected with something new. It is similar to the Hendra virus, which was first isolated in Australia in 1994 and has since killed three people there. International experts arrived in Kuala Lumpur last week to study the new menace. They have shunned media inquiries, as has the Malaysian government, which recently barred reporters from entering some of the worst-affected areas. All of which has only increased the fear sweeping the country. The doctors cannot do anything, says Jean Lim, an evangelical pastor who came to Seremban to pray for the sick. The Angel of Death is passing through this place.

Malaysia's agony is no isolated case. Viral outbreaks--including previously unknown strains--are on the rise worldwide. Over the past decade, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta have identified more than 50 new viruses that cause illness in humans. We have seen some quite new things and it will take a little while to work out what is going on, says Brian Mahy, CDC's director for viral and rickettsial diseases. There is the potential for the emergence of a new virus against which we would have no resistance and for which there would be no vaccine. Malaysians can only hope this isn't it.
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Sealed off from the outside world by police, Bukit Pelandok is a forbidding place. The houses are deserted, and officials wear face masks as they survey the scene through the closed windows of their vehicles. Outside, the stench of pigs--alive and dead--is overpowering. Starving dogs, cats and pigs, abandoned by their owners, roam the empty streets. Just off the main road into town, soldiers dressed like astronauts are shooting pigs and burying them in large pits. The swine are up to 2 m long and can weigh 400 kg, so the men try to lure the animals to the edge of the pits and push them in before opening fire. Hundreds of pigs are buried in a single pit, says Maniam, a truck driver hired by the government to dump earth on the graves. Some of them are still alive, some are half dead. The soldiers don't care.

After the scourge carried off two of his closest neighbors, Pang Goo Seng killed all of his 300 pigs and moved his family out of Bukit Pelandok. Despite the considerable health risk, he returns to the town each day to guard his home against looters. Pang's calloused hands and broken fingernails testify to a lifetime of hard work on a small farm that brought in just enough money to support five children. Now, deprived of his livelihood and with only $130 in savings, Pang is close to despair. I can only survive for a few months but, after that, how will I buy food? he asks, tears welling up in his eyes. If I think about it too much I could go mad.

More than 70,000 pigs have already been culled, and hundreds of thousands are being vaccinated against JE. As of last week, tens of thousands of homes had been fumigated in the worst-affected Lukut area of Negri Sembilan. The government has spent more than $7.4 million vaccinating people in high-risk occupations and groups, while hospitals have begun using a costly new Ribavarin treatment on JE patients.

Some Malaysians argue that the government could have prevented most of the deaths if it had paid closer attention to the outbreak when it erupted late last year, killing 25 people in the northern state of Perak. Official action remained half-hearted, says opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, who alleges that Kuala Lumpur initially attempted to hush up the problem to avoid hurting the tourism industry. (Health Ministry officials declined requests for an interview with Time. All our staff are dedicated to combating the disease at the moment, said Chang Aik Ming, Health Minister Chua Jui Meng's press secretary.) This is the second major virus outbreak in two years; a 1997 epidemic claimed the lives of at least 30 children, mostly in the eastern state of Sarawak. There is a culture of incompetence and indifference, says Lim, who is calling for an inquiry into the government's handling of the crisis. This disaster was completely man-made, avoidable and unnecessary.

The effects of the virus already reach far beyond Malaysia's pig farmers. Eight abattoir workers in Singapore have been diagnosed with meningo-encephalitis, which has killed one local pig trader. Initial tests indicate that two or more workers have a virus other than JE and may be victims of the Hendra-like strain. Both Singapore and Thailand have closed their borders to Malaysian swine, a move that could cost exporters more than $100 million a year and decimate a pig-farming industry that provided a livelihood to 300,000 people until the virus struck. And virtually all other Malaysians are affected as well, by the health risk and by pressure on the supply of beef and chicken, as pork consumption plummets to less than 30% of normal levels.

The crisis continues to wreak havoc on everyday life. Six schools in the affected areas have been closed. Malaysia's tourism industry, already battered by the political turmoil surrounding the dismissal and arrest of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, is almost certain to take a further blow. It is a bitter irony that 1999 is Visit Negri Sembilan Year, a promotional campaign to draw visitors to the state that now has the highest infection rate in the country. At places like Seremban Hospital, ordinary Malaysians carry on their grim struggle with the killer virus. Every day the children ask me if he's well yet, and I have to say 'Not yet,' says Mrs. Param. We don't know where we will go or what we will do. Perhaps now, with an emergency declared, someone will give her an answer.

With reporting by Ravi Velloor/Singapore
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