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KUCHING: Belaga, especially in areas around the Bakun hydroelectric project, has been rumoured of mysterious deaths and attack of acute sickness which Sarawak Health Department believes could be melioidosis.

Statistics released by the department stated that until July 23, there were 31 cases of melioidosis in Sarawak, with the highest concentration found in Kapit with 15 cases, and Belaga with 8 cases.

Elsewhere there were two cases in Tatau and one case each in Kuching, Serian, Sri Aman, Lubok Antu, Selangau and Bintulu.

There were already five fatalities due to melioidosis this year, with two deaths each in Belaga and Kapit and one in Tatau.

Sarawak Health director Dr Zulkifli Jantan explained that melioidosis was a bacterial infection caused by a bacteria found in soil and water.

"Generally, those who are at risk are advised to seek treatment as early as possible if they have symptoms such as fever, cough, chest pain, bodyache, chronic ulcer/wound, and a history of exposure to possible source of infections, such as soil or water."

Last year, there was a total of 343 reported cases out of which 17 were fatalities -- Tatau 3, Selangau 2, Song 2, and one each in Kuching, Serian, Saratok, Mukah, Sibu, Kapit, Belaga, Bintulu, Lawas and Miri.

"This year, two clusters have been reported. The first cluster was 3 cases in Belaga and the second cluster was 3 cases in Iron Wall Logging Camp, Kapit.

"In most of the cases, the predisposing factor is related to working condition which involved contact with soil.

"Cases among workers of Bakun HEP or involved with the project have been detected since 2006."

He said patients diagnosed with melioidosis were given treatment as inpatients and the department would investigate all reported cases.

"The data gathered include symptoms and signs of the disease, occupation, place of work, exposure to possible source of infections for the past one month such as water activity, jungle trekking and history of close contact with soil, and source of drinking water."

In terms of preventive measures, he said the department had been giving health education talks on the disease to the public.

Land Development Minister Tan Sri Dr James Masing urged the relevant authorities to take the cases seriously.

Masing testified that his brother-in-law, Penghulu Musa Talek, who is a resident of Belaga, was admitted to Bintulu Hospital last week suspected of suffering from medioidosis. Musa is now in recovery and has been reacting positively to the medication.

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