Haze sickens half a million People In Indonesia

The number of people falling ill from deteriorating air quality has jumped to almost 500,000 as fires that have ravaged forest and peat lands in Sumatra and Kalimantan over the past two months continue to affect millions of people.

Health Minister Nila Djuwita Anfasa Moeloek said that as of Friday, the haze had caused 425,377 people from all six affected provinces to suffer from acute respiratory infections (ISPA).

“Our figures point to 425,377 cases of ISPA, although not all of them are being treated [in hospital] for infections,” Nila said after a discussion with leaders of the House of Representatives at the House compound in Central Jakarta, on Friday.

Earlier, respiratory illness as a result of the air pollution claimed the life of one infant while another 19 babies received intensive treatment in Sumatra hospitals.

Additionally, ministry data from last week said that out of a total of 307,358 ISPA cases, there were four fatalities in Riau Islands, one in Jambi and two in South Sumatra.

In response to the emergency, the ministry has prioritized the introduction of preventive methods to curtail the number of patients and those falling sick, such as the distribution of protective masks to prevent people from inhaling soot from the air.

Nila also urged local residents in regions with high levels of air pollution to stay indoors, or to wear masks or other protective gear while outdoors. “It all depends on the level of the ISPU [air pollution standard index]; if it exceeds 300 µg/m³ then it becomes quite bad because there are too many airborne particles. That’s why we urge the public to refrain from leaving [their homes],” Nila said.

Nila also recommended that infants and children, pregnant women and the elderly with a high risk of illness should completely avoid exposure to the air pollution.

The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) reported on Friday that a number of major cities in Sumatra and Kalimantan still had highly unhealthy levels of particulate matter (PM10) stemming from the smoke from unremitting fires.

Jambi, Palembang in South Sumatra and Pontianak in West Kalimantan, had the worst air quality in the country after PM10 levels of over 320 µg/m³ were measured in all three cities on Friday afternoon.

According to the government’s guidelines, air quality is considered “healthy” if its PM10 level is below 50 µg/m³, “moderate” when the level is between 50 and 150 µg/m³, “unhealthy” between 150 and 350 µg/m³, “very unhealthy” between 350 and 420 µg/m³ and “dangerous” when it surpasses 420 µg/m³. 

Over the past few months, many regions in Indonesia, including Riau, Jambi, North Sumatra, South Sumatra and Central Kalimantan, have been struggling to cope with the impact of smoke produced by both man-made and natural land and forest fires.

The ongoing disaster has been exacerbated by this year’s long dry season, triggered by the El Niño weather phenomenon. 

The Health Ministry had already introduced various health-related mitigation efforts, such as the distribution of over 30 tons of supplies and disaster relief, comprising masks, rations, medicine and oxygen tanks, to the eight provinces most affected by the smog.

On Friday, in addition to Nila, Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Luhut B. Pandjaitan and Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar also briefed lawmakers on the government’s pollution-mitigation efforts.

Responding to the briefing, House speaker Setya Novanto applauded the government’s efforts thus far.

“I hope that there won’t be any more fatalities [from the smog] — all the work currently being done is for the benefit of the people,” Setya said on Friday.

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