At least two Indonesians who recently returned from Saudi Arabia have died, raising fears that an outbreak of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the Kingdom has reached the archipelago.
So far, a man who died in Medan on Sunday and another in Denpasar on Wednesday (May 7th) are suspected to have succumbed to MERS, local media reported.
In addition, three residents of Pekanbaru are being treated in isolation for MERS symptoms – high fevers and difficulty breathing, according to the Jakarta Globe.
"They've just returned from the minor hajj and have MERS indicators," the Globe quoted Riau Health Agency head Zainal Arifin as saying.
As of Wednesday, though Indonesia had not issued any updated advisories or warnings on travel to Saudi Arabia, in comments to reporters, Health Minister Nafsiah Mboi urged the elderly and other vulnerable groups to postpone pilgrimages.
"It is advisable to postpone Umrah or hajj this year if you have any of the following conditions: chronic pain, low immunity, age over 65, pregnancy or are a child under the age of 12," she said according to Detik.com.
Getting the word out
The government announced May 2nd it would work with Saudi Arabia and other nations to contain the health threat, Antara reported. The Health Ministry also notified Indonesians travelling to Saudi to take precautions.
As many as 138 cases of MERS were identified in Saudi Arabia between April 11th-26th, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). As of April 26th, WHO counted 261 lab-confirmed cases worldwide since September 2012, including 95 fatalities.
On April 27th, a 61-year-old Indonesian man living in Saudi Arabia died of the virus in a Jeddah hospital, Tjandra Yoga Aditama, director general of disease control and environment health director for the Health Ministry, told reporters.
The government will follow up by tracking down people who interacted with him, he said.
"We will continue this process for the next two weeks with the Indonesian Consulate in Saudi Arabia, as well as with the World Health Organisation. We will also have a meeting with future Muslim pilgrims from Indonesia to ensure their safe travel," Tjandra told Khabar Southeast Asia.
Because as many as 250,000 Indonesians go on hajj every year, the government is busy informing travellers about the risks of exposure to MERS, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali said.
"With this huge number of people, every citizen must be aware of this virus. Every citizen is responsible to look after (his) health and resilience while performing hajj," he told reporters.
Despite the health scare, Jakarta resident Farida Manti said she planned to join the throngs of Muslims from across the globe converging on Mecca in early October for the hajj.
"I only can take preventative measures to avoid this virus. However, I will not cancel the pilgrim trip. I have been planning this for years," Farida, who plans to attend with seven relatives, told Khabar.