Haze may worsen H1N1

(Straits Times) KUALA LUMPUR – THE thick haze blanketing some parts of Malaysia could worsen the Influenza A (H1N1) situation by triggering more respiratory illnesses, Health Minister Liow Tiong Lai has said.

Experts have warned that the current forest fires in Indonesia and Sarawak, if left unchecked, may bring about the region's worst haze in 10 years. Malaysia has reported 14 H1N1 flu-related deaths and about 1,426 infections.

'The H1N1 virus attacks the lung cells directly. It then causes serious pneumonia. Those with respiratory ailments have weaker immune systems and the attack can be more serious,' Datuk Seri Liow was quoted as saying by The Star daily.

Meanwhile, many residents in Kuala Lumpur complained about the smell and discomfort they have to put up with because of the haze. Forty-year-old personal assistant Anita Abdullah said she had dry eyes and an itchy throat this week. 'Every year it comes in July and August. I can smell it, and I can see it. I'm just wondering why they can't tackle it,' she said on Thursday.

Environment Department director-general Rosnani Ibrahim said the number of hot spots has gone up since Sunday, caused by a combination of the dry weather and open burning activities.

'We hope that it will improve. It depends on whether it will rain, and how hard they will fight the fire,' she told The Straits Times.

Mr Faizal Parish, director of the Malaysia-based Global Environment Centre, said there were fears of a repeat of the haze crisis that hit the region in 1997-1998 and caused an estimated US$9 billion (S$13 billion) in economic losses.

'The situation is likely to get worse,' he told The Straits Times. 'Because of the drought, it could potentially develop into the worst haze seen in 10 years or more,' he said.

On Wednesday, Malaysia was hit by the worst haze this year as 'unhealthy' levels were recorded in Cheras, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and Kuantan in Pahang. Bintulu, Samarahan and Sibu in Sarawak were similarly hit.

Air quality is considered unhealthy when readings are in the 101-200 range, very unhealthy, in the 201-300 range, and hazardous if the reading exceeds 300. A reading of 0-50 is deemed good and is moderate if it is within 51-100.