Mongabay Series: Indonesian Forests

Children are dying from respiratory ailments as haze blankets Sumatra

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A little girl passed away in Riau last week.

Children are dying from respiratory ailments as haze blankets Sumatra
  • An elementary school student in Riau, an epicenter of Indonesia's haze crisis, died of respiratory failure last week.
  • Two other children, aged 15 and 2, passed away in Jambi.
  • The Health Ministry logged more than 10,000 cases of respiratory infection as of September 4.

At a housing complex in Riau, an epicenter of Indonesia’s haze crisis, Muklis shows a picture of his little daughter, seated before a piano and peering into the camera.

She passed away last week, as forest fires blanketed the region in noxious smog.

“The doctors said she died of respiratory failure,” said Muklis, who works as a journalist. “There was nothing else.”

The haze crisis is an annual event in Indonesia, but this year it is especially intense, with El Nino delaying rainy season and causing drought in most provinces.

As usual, smoke from the fires has drifted into Singapore and Malaysia, prompting calls for law enforcement against oil palm and pulp-and-paper developers that have allowed their concessions to burn, or even set fires themselves for the purpose of clearing land, which is illegal.

But it is Indonesians who have suffered the most. The provinces of Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra and West, Central and South Kalimantan have been hardest hit. In Riau as of September 4, there were 10,133 cases of respiratory infection, 311 of pneumonia, 415 of asthma, 689 of eye pain and 1,085 of skin pain, according to Health Ministry data.

Thick haze shrouds Pekanbaru, the capital of Indonesia’s Riau province. As of last Friday, the air quality registered as ‘unhealthy.’ Photo by Made Ali

Two weeks ago in Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau, Muklis’ daughter Hanum Angriawati developed a mild cough.

It didn’t go away, so he took her to the doctor near his home, where she received oxygen therapy. It seemed to help, but after seven days she was coughing again and couldn’t sleep.

On the morning of September 4, a Friday, Mukhlis put Hanum on his motorbike and drove through the thick haze to Arifin Ahmad Hospital. “Hanum said, ‘The air is so fresh’,” Muklis recalled. “Even though my eyes were hurting from the smog.”

At the hospital, she again received oxygen therapy, but this time her condition worsened. She coughed up a yellowish-black liquid and had to be treated with a defibrillator.

For almost a week, Hanum was in intensive care with a breathing machine. She grew weaker and weaker, her breathing becoming more and more difficult. Finally, she stopped altogether.

“She spoke English so well, and her math was OK,” Muklis said. “She motivated me to quit smoking. She didn’t like it when I smoked.”

Muklis stands outside his home in Riau as mourners gather for his daughter. Photo by Made Ali

A pediatrician at the hospital, Riri Mahise, told news portal Riau Online that Hanum died of meningitis and lung irritation. The girl had a history of the disease, and Riri said there was indication of tuberculosis. In the end, the doctors couldn’t be sure whether Hanum’s infection was due to the latest outbreak of haze. They pronounced her dead from respiratory failure because of heaps of mucus in her right lung.

Later, Acting Riau Governor Rachman visited Muklis’ house to hear Hanum’s story and offer his condolences.

“I urge people to seek treatment at nearby public health centers and hospitals,” Arsyadjuliandi said. “The main services can be given to those who have Riau ID cards. People should take advantage of the public health programs.”

Muklis said he spent 4-5 million rupiah ($279-348) per night for Hanum’s room in the hospital, not to mention drugs.

Acting Riau Governor Arsyadjuliandi Rachman (white shirt) visits house of a man whose daughter died of respiratory failure last week during the haze crisis. Photo by Made Ali

Hanum isn’t the only child to have died from a respiratory infection during the haze crisis. Last week in Jambi, Dimas Aditya Putra, 2, and Wahyuni, 15, passed away.

Wahyuni’s father, Trimo, said it started with a dry cough and progressed to shortness of breath, according to Jambiupdate.com.

The girl had a heart problem, but Trimo attributed her death to the smog, which affected her breathing.

“We recognize our child had a congenital heart defect, but it was never as bad as this,” he said.

Dimas’ parents took her to a local clinic after she started vomiting frequently. The doctors diagnosed her with a lack of fluids and recommended she be hospitalized, but the family opted for outpatient care.

When her condition did not improve, her parents brought her back for further tests.

“The doctors said she had a clot in her back, and maybe it was because of the haze,” said Wati, her grandmother. “What else could it be? In the past two days, the haze was so thick.”

A picture of Hanum playing the piano hangs on the wall of her family's house. Photo by Made Ali
A picture of Hanum playing the piano hangs on the wall of her family’s house. Photo by Made Ali

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