Bird Flu Deaths Sow Panic In Wealthy Jakarta Suburb

A television crew sets up in Villa Melati Mas, a prosperous community west of the Indonesian capital, where a father and two of his children died of avian influenza earlier this month.
A television crew sets up in Villa Melati Mas, a prosperous community west of the Indonesian capital, where a father and two of his children died of avian influenza earlier this month. (By Alan Sipress -- The Washington Post)
By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 25, 2005

SERPONG, Indonesia -- When Iwan Siswara Rafei, a government auditor, and his two young daughters died suddenly this month, there was panic in their middle-class suburb along with reports that they were Indonesia's first casualties of bird flu.

Neighbors anxiously traded rumors across the metal fences surrounding their neatly landscaped yards. Mothers kept their children from playing on the palm-lined streets. Some families in this quiet California-style subdivision of bankers, businessmen and doctors considered packing up their belongings in their SUVs and abandoning their homes.

Most residents of the Villa Melati Mas bedroom community on the western outskirts of Jakarta had paid little mind to reports of avian influenza, which has devastated poultry flocks across Indonesia during the last two years and killed dozens of people in other Southeast Asian countries.

Then the horror came home to 7 Pondok Cempaka St.

"We've really got a panic attack," said Kresentia Widyanto, 40, a mother of three with shoulder-length auburn hair who wore a floral housedress. "People have been asking, 'Do we need to evacuate and go somewhere else, to vacate this place?' "

For 15 years, Widyanto and her husband, a physician, have lived around the corner from Rafei's brown cottage with its pitched, terra-cotta roof and small purple flowers in planters out front. Widyanto's son is 8 years old, the same age as Rafei's daughter, Sabrina. When the girl was hospitalized late last month with a high fever, diarrhea and a cough, word spread quickly.

Rafei's second daughter, 1-year-old Thalita, developed similar symptoms days later, followed by Rafei, 37. By July 14, all three had died, with Sabrina surviving the longest.

Indonesian health officials announced last week that they suspected bird flu; test results, received Wednesday from a specialized laboratory in Hong Kong, confirmed it. Rafei's sample tested positive for the highly lethal virus while a specimen from the older daughter showed she, too, had been exposed. No test was done for the younger one.

So far, nearly all of the avian flu victims in Asia have contracted the disease from infected birds. International health experts warn that the virus could spark a pandemic, killing tens of millions of people, if the strain evolves into a form easily passed among people.

"I'm wondering why this happened. I'm confused. Can we get this? We're trying to be calm," Widyanto said anxiously as she stocked up on broccoli and cauliflower from a vegetable peddler plying the subdivision's cobblestone streets. She has forbidden her children to eat outside the home in case the virus can spread through food. "We've stopped going to Kentucky Fried Chicken," she said.

Stoking the neighborhood's fear is uncertainty about the outbreak's cause. Unlike the rural villages of Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, where other bird flu deaths have occurred, there are no farmers or live chickens in Villa Melati Mas.

"The mystery about how they got the disease makes us really nervous and government officials can't explain it," said Listari, 33, whose husband is a banker, standing in her front doorway, hands folded on a pregnant stomach. Like many Indonesians, she uses one name.

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