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Lessons from the past evidence of pandemic flu in Indonesia unearthed

© UNICEF/2009/Rukmantara
70-year-old Kun Masora recalls his mother's story of a deadly pandemic.


By Arie Rukmantara

TANA TORAJA, 8 May, 2009 -  “I lost three of my relatives,” said Kun Masora, a member of the Tana Toraja tribal council.
 
“It happened in 1918. All of them had high fever,” said the 70-year-old man, recalling a story told by his mother about a deadly disease that hit his hometown 91 years ago.
 
Masora’s mother, who died in 1995, often told her children about the outbreak that hit her remote community in the mountains of Sulawesi.  Her story is part of traditional folklore that is passed from generation to generation.

Masora’s testimony and others provide strong evidence that Indonesia has experienced pandemic flu similar to the outbreaks in America and Europe.  Today, experts are examining the way governments responded to the 1918 pandemic to learn how the virus spread and what actions we can take now to avoid a global catastrophe.
 
In the 1918 mysterious outbreak, known locally as Raa’ba Biang (loosely translated as fallen trees), killed hundreds of people in the hilly areas of Tana Toraja.
 
Medical records from the Dutch Colonial administration, which ruled Tana Toraja and much of what is present day Indonesia reveal that the outbreak was influenza. Researchers from the University of Indonesia, who obtained the records, say that the deaths were part of the global pandemic known as "Spanish Flu". According to WHO, the  pandemic killed more than 20 million people around the world in 1918.   The Dutch estimated that about 10 percent of the 3,000 Torajans died, while according to Masora’s mother the deadly flu wiped out around half of the Torajan population.
 
Another tribal elder, Tato Dena, said that the massive deaths were caused by a disease that quickly spread from person to person.
“My father said the air seemed to be poisoned.  There was not a single family that did not lose someone close to them,” said the 71-year-old, who lost his grandfather to the outbreak.

 “Worse, those who buried the dead died shortly after they had contact with the corpse. My father said that people did not have time to bury dead people so they were just dumped in cemeteries across Toraja,” he added.
 
"Information about past outbreaks can help raise awareness today", said Purwata Iskandar, UNICEF Chief of Field Office for South Sulawesi. "People need to know that a pandemic is not just something that happens on the other side of the world, but that is has hit home even in remote areas like Toraja," he added.

 

 
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