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.
Around the sprawling subdivision, a few parrots and other pet birds twittered in cages hanging from front porches and balconies. But neighbors buy their meat at the local supermarket, tucked amid recently built malls and strip shopping centers, not from traditional live poultry markets blamed in some other deaths.
"We couldn't imagine this happening here," Listari said. "It's so bizarre, so strange."
Rumors have been rampant. Worried relatives call from elsewhere in Indonesia, agitated by the latest speculation on national television. Neighbors have telephoned the local leader, Sunaryo, in the middle of the night, alarmed by gossip that Rafei's wife had also died. In truth, his wife, son and two maids remain healthy.
"We'd heard of bird flu before but didn't pay attention," said Sunaryo, 62, a retired executive who volunteers as the neighborhood leader. "We got terrified because we didn't know the truth about this disease."
Shortly after the deaths, Sunaryo called into a television talk show featuring the nation's health minister, Siti Fadilah Supari, and asked her to visit the neighborhood to address the residents directly.
More than 200 people crowded into the local swim and tennis club that weekend for the meeting. Flanked by fellow officials, the minister briefed neighbors about the experience of other countries with bird flu. She urged them not to worry, guaranteeing them that bird flu could not be transmitted person to person.
Despite repeated assurances from government officials, the tests conducted on Rafei and his older daughter, coupled with the timing of the three deaths, suggest the virus might have been passed among family members, according to health experts. Although scientists have not proved that bird flu can spread from one person to another, heath experts say it is possible that transmission among family members has already occurred in about a half-dozen cases in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.
Rafei's wife and his mother, speaking in interviews outside their house, said they did not know how he and the daughters got sick. Rafei was a busy professional who set out early every morning on his two-hour commute to Jakarta's downtown financial district and returned late in the evening, leaving little time for side trips to farms or chicken markets, they explained. His wife, Lin Rosalina, eyes red from crying, said she was also certain her children had not come into contact with live poultry.
"I'm very sure," she added, switching from Indonesian to English to make the point.
Sunaryo, the neighborhood leader, said he also remained skeptical about official reports that Rafei and his daughters caught the virus from birds.
"We don't know how it happened," he said, sitting on his porch and holding his 18-month-old grandson close. "If we don't know the cause, it might be spreading silently."