EXCLUSIVE BY ELROI YEE AND SHANJEEV REDDY
BELUM: A mysterious illness is killing orang asli children from the Jahai tribe in the Sungai Kejar area of Perak’s Royal Belum State Park and the authorities are either unaware of it or believe that the orang asli are not reporting the deaths.
The tribe calls the disease serawan. It starts with white spots in the children’s mouths and kills within days after symptoms are seen.
The Star’s R.AGE team travelled deep into the state park to probe and film a documentary.
It found families among the Jahai who have been losing their children to the disease.
An eight-year-old girl, Malini, died the morning after the team arrived and R.AGE was allowed to record footage of the burial rituals.
“If not for serawan, she would still be here,” said Malini’s grandfather, Kurup, who said that countless others have died from serawan.
Bain, another man from the tribe, said the disease had killed five of his children, adding that he knew four others who had died from it this year.
“We used to have around 600 people in the villages here, and we were happy. Now about 400 of us are left,” he said.
According to the Orang Asli Development Department (Jakoa) there are about 300 orang asli in Sungai Kejar.
R.AGE showed a photo of the symptoms to several doctors who concluded that the white spots were symptoms of oral thrush.
Thrush occurs when the immune system is weakened by disease or malnutrition and is almost never fatal.
The doctors said detailed tests were needed to determine the cause of the symptoms.
Universiti Malaya anthropologist Kamal Solhaimi Fadzil, who has done extensive research on orang asli communities in the Belum-Temenggor forest in Perak, said the child mortality rate in Sungai Kejar could be as high as 50%.
The Perak State Parks Corporation (PSPC) manages the 117,500ha state, which is located in the most northerly region of Perak.
Surprisingly, Jakoa’s Hulu Perak and Baling district officer Razali Khamis, whose department oversees the Sungai Kejar area, said there had been no reported deaths among the Sungai Kejar orang asli since 2014.
He said he had also never heard about serawan and expressed doubts over the stories of child deaths.
Razali referred the R.AGE team to the district health department for more information, but its records were the same.
Hulu Perak health department district officer Dr Noor Asmah Ahmad Shah Azizi said it was possible that the orang asli were not reporting the deaths as records showed only one death since 2013.
Malini’s death, however, was only recorded after R.AGE requested an interview with the health department.
“There could be under-reporting of deaths, but not as many as claimed,”she said, adding that being uneducated they might have problems counting, keeping track of months and such.
But in addition to Malini’s death, R.AGE found more evidence that Jahai children were dying.
Keladi, the man who hosted the documentary team, for example, produced the death certificate of his daughter, who died of serawan on May 17 this year.
* Read today’s edition of R.AGE for the full story, or go to rage.com.my to watch the R.AGE video documentary, Unprotected: Orang Asli In The Royal Belum State Park.