Jakarta – In the past few weeks, health authorities have been puzzled by a mysterious strain of hepatitis popping up among children in several parts of the country since the first suspected cases were detected late last month in Jakarta.
By Friday, Indonesia had reported one probable case and 17 suspected cases of severe hepatitis of unknown origin – including seven suspected hepatitis-linked deaths – in seven provinces. Most of the suspected cases were found in children aged 14 and below. Seven of the 17 suspected cases were considered "discarded" because their clinical presentations showed other explanations, such as having tested positive for hepatitis A or B or the patients were above 16 years of age.
The Health Ministry has been communicating with the World Health Organization and health authorities in the United States and the United Kingdom to stay informed about the disease, which was first detected in the UK.
The ministry is also trying to improve detection of the unexplained hepatitis while still investigating epidemiological links between cases that might provide clues for tracking the source of illness.
It cautioned local health authorities across the country of the disease on April 27 – the same day it detected the first three suspected cases and just four days after the WHO published an alert on the mysterious disease in multiple countries.
The Indonesian Pediatrician Association (IDAI) and the Indonesian Doctors Association (IDI) were also quick to instruct doctors, health workers and pediatricians under the two organizations to be cautious about any hepatitis symptoms found in their patients and constantly monitor these cases.
The suspected cases of unexplained hepatitis cases emerged in Indonesia just when many COVID-19 restrictions began to ease after coronavirus cases began declining nationwide.
At least 348 probable cases of hepatitis of unknown origin in children have now been reported to the WHO from 20 countries as of last week, with 70 additional cases from a further 13 countries that are pending classification, as hepatitis A to E serology tests are awaiting completion.
The cause remains unknown despite studies into the potential role of adenoviruses and COVID-19 infection abroad gathering pace, with the WHO recently saying that leading hypotheses remain those involving adenoviruses.
Some two years ago, COVID-19 caught the government and Indonesian people off guard. The government was unprepared and instituted policies that should have been in place much earlier, like restricting mobilities and upscaling testing and surveillance.
Now that the pandemic is easing, we should not repeat our mistakes.
The coronavirus and its variants – whether they are as deadly as the Delta or as contagious as Omicron – should have taught the government about how to prepare, detect and respond to any emerging diseases.
Our society, too, is already familiar with public health measures and social distancing during the pandemic. Therefore, we can act to help prevent the spread of another mysterious disease, as common preventive measures for many infections, including adenoviruses, are handwashing and maintaining basic hygiene.
The country cannot afford to be so unprepared ever again, let alone allow more children to fall prey to a new disease.