The Nipah Story: Pigs Can’t Fly

Tambun is legendary for its pomelos, which require two full hands to hold one of these giant grapefruits. Many of the pomelo smallholdings are near pig farms in the hamlet situated just outside Ipoh, the capital city of state of Perak in northern Peninsular Malaysia.

Like many Chinese there, Lee Koai Tow, worked as a pomelo farmer. Since pig waste was plentiful there, she used them to as fertilizers for the fruit trees. In September 1998, pigs in the area began to die in large numbers. The following month, Lee died too and her husband did not know why. Two days later on October 31, duck breeder Lai Mei, also died of a strange illness.

By year-end, ten workers from the pig-farming areas of Tambun, Ulu Piah and Ampang around Ipoh had died from a mysterious disease after being in coma for periods ranging from four days to a few weeks. The government identified the disease as Japanese Encephalitis or commonly known as JE. It said if no new cases were found by the following month, the government would declare that the JE outbreak had been contained.

However, less than two months later one day after Christmas, a pig farmer came down with suspected JE in Sikamat village, 270 km down south in the state of Negri Sembilan. By the first week into the new year, pigs in nearby Seremban, the state capital, began dying. Three people in the pig industry there died suddenly.

Toward the Chinese New Year in mid-March of 1999, a pig breeder of Sungai Nipah just south of Seremban, suddenly died triggering a panic. Half the population of the village fled elsewhere for fear of the killer disease. It spread like a raging wildfire out of control causing pig farmers and villagers to abandon their farms and homes in panic. By March, in nearby Bukit Pelanduk, the biggest pig farming community in Southeast Asia, had become a ghost town due to the hurried exodus.

The government then up-scaled the epidemic to a national crisis and a Cabinet-level task force was formed headed by the then Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. What happened in between was confusing. The government insisted that it was right in tagging the disease as the mosquito-borne JE while both the farmers and scientists suspected that an unknown killer has yet to be unmasked.

The outbreak was so lethal that every other suspected victim admitted into hospitals went home in their coffins. The virus had spread all over the surrounding areas to Kampung Sawah, Kampung India and Sepang, a stone’s throw from the new Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Stricken with fear, the farmers consulted temple mediums. They instructed the farmers to put up red banners on their door frames and fly red flags in their villages to ward off the angel of death.

After months of treating the outbreak as JE, the government decided in desperation to call in the Department of Medical Microbiology of University of Malaya’s Medical Faculty to help. Within five days the virus was isolated by Dr Chua Kaw Bing. Twelve days later it was identified as a new Hendra-like virus and tagged as the Nipah virus with the help of foreign scientists. The government then changed its strategy to combat the outbreak but still insisted that it was also partly due to JE.

At last count, the outbreak killed at least 115 people out of 265 infected cases. Over one million pigs, or half the country’s pig population, were culled. Some 36,000 had suffered the loss of employment due to the massive destruction of farms. Tens of thousands more were indirectly affected. In all, close to RM500 million of pig production was lost according to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates. Overnight, Malaysia had become a net importer of pork whereas previously it was the key supplier of the meat in the region.

The farmers and their families had since returned to Bukit Pelanduk and the other affected townships. And to uncertain days. The authorities had since banned pig farming there. The young had drifted elsewhere in search of jobs. Only the old remained to live out their days.

The farmers appealed for compensation but the government was only not willing to compensate but would give them assistance at RM50 per pig destroyed when the market price was several times that. About 500 farmers decided to sue the government in 2002 but the cases are still stuck in the courts after six years.

Meanwhile, back in Bukit Pelanduk some old farmers were sipping their Chinese tea at a local coffee stall one hot and humid morning. Asked for their comments on the court case, one just stared back and retorted: “How long more?” Another gave a disgusted look and picked up his teacup for another sip of ti koon yam.

“What are you all going to do?” The old man put down his teacup, eyeballed his inquirer and pounded his chest with his right fist:“Waiting to die lah!” The rest of the old men all laughed animatedly.

It may seem like a cruel joke on themselves but their tears have dried up so long ago perhaps they needed that comic relief however false it may be to cleanse the despair inside them. These former farmers knew pigs can’t fly. They were all dead and buried now. Soon it would be their turn. (By BOB TEOH/ MySinchew)

MySinchew 2008.07.19


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