KOTA KINABALU May 18, 2012: The uncontrolled influx of illegal immigrants into Sabah has spawned a lethal infectious disease, once thought to have been almost eradicated.
Tuberculosis, more commonly known as TB, is killing people on a weekly basis in Sabah and the spread of the disease is being pinned on the immigrants who have been pouring over its borders for years.
That works out to about 200 deaths every year from the disease that was once thought to have been almost eradicated in Sabah.
The State Health Department said an average of 10 people are diagnosed with TB in Sabah every week and most of them are foreigners.
“Kota Kinabalu ranks the highest, followed by Tawau and Sandakan,” Sabah Health Department assistant director (TB/Leprosy), Dr Richard Avoi told a health care seminar here over the weekend.
The spread of TB, he said, is known to be closely associated with poverty, overcrowding, alcoholism, malnutrition and drug abuse.
“It spreads easily in overcrowded, poorly ventilated places and among people who are undernourished,” Dr Avoi said.
All Sabah’s major towns are fertile grounds for the disease. They all have a large population of poor, illegal immigrants from the southern Philippines and Indonesia living in shanty towns that have mushroomed in the state.
What makes it worse, according to Dr Avoi, is that about 17% of the immigrant TB patients and about 3% of locals suffering from the disease do not complete their six-month treatment regimen leading to them being more drug-resistant and for the disease to keep resurfacing.
The BCG vaccine injection given to babies is no guarantee that one would not contract TB.
Other than pulmonary TB which infects the lungs, the other strains of the disease infect the bones, skin, lymph nodes and even the brain.
The authorities official confirmation of the increasing threat of the disease building to epidemic proportions has raised fears that certain areas such as the crowded wet markets, shopping complexes and cinemas that are popular meeting spots for the immigrant population, will become “no-go zones” soon.
Those frequenting these places are already vulnerable if they fail to take extra care, health officials have long warned.
The risk is high considering that TB, a contagious bacterial infection that involves the lungs, but can spread to other organs, can infect people of any age and once infected, the whole family and acquaintances in contact with the carrier is at risk.
“Being about three feet away from someone with TB can increase chances of getting pulmonary TB,” Dr Avoi told the seminar.
According to him, there would be a very high risk of getting TB if one is, for instance, inside a long-distance bus with someone with TB onboard.
This makes traveling by bus to the east coast towns like Tawau, Lahad Datu, Semporna and Sandakan to Kota Kinabalu, a journey of about eight hours, a risky business.
James Bagah, the president of Consumer Protection Association of Sabah (Caps) said the revelation is alarming.
“We advise people to avoid if possible places where they think they would be exposed to infectious diseases including the dreaded TB,” he said in an immediate reaction to the prevalence of the disease when contacted by FMT.
Bagah also said the authorities should increase TB awareness talks as many were not aware of the growing threat of the disease in the state.
“I am concerned as there seem to be more and more people coughing nowadays. You can see it for yourself everywhere … I hope its is just the weather and not something serious like TB,” he added.
While the “good news” about TB is that it is curable, the problem Sabah is facing is that its health care services are overwhelmed and border control is almost non-existent.