Haze, COVID-19 and Your Health

Haze is a perennial situation in the Country. The conditions become more apparent during the hot and dry months of the year. Haze can be caused by natural phenomena like dust storms, volcanic eruptions, or wildfires, as well as human activities such as industrial pollution, vehicle exhaust, burning of fossil fuels, and open burning. In the last couple of weeks, the hourly air pollution index (API) in several areas of the country shows unhealthy levels, i.e., levels between 101 and 200.

The API is calculated based on the average concentration of air pollutants, i.e., sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrous dioxide (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), particulate matters of 2.5 and 10 microns in size (PM2.5 and PM10). In Malaysia, the API is reported by the Department of Environment (DOE) through their website the API Management System. It can range from GOOD to HAZARDOUS. The DOE API Management System reports readings from 68 weather stations throughout Malaysia. The API reading for 25 Apr 2023 at 12 am from the 68 stations: 23 stations are good (API 0-50), and 45 stations are moderate (API 51-100).

When the air quality decreases, the public needs to take precautions during such situations, especially for children and the elderly, and those with breathing problems or diseases. The precautions that need to be taken will depends on the severity of the air pollution. When the API is at a moderate level, there are no precautions needed for the general population, however, individuals who are unusually sensitive should consider limiting prolonged outdoor exertion.

If the conditions become worst, i.e., when the API turns to UNHEALTHY, i.e., when the readings are more than 100, then children, the elderly, and people with respiratory diseases, such as asthma should avoid prolonged outdoor exertion, and everyone else should limit prolonged outdoor exertion. When the API readings show VERY UNHEALTHY and HAZARDOUS conditions, then the public should avoid outdoor activities. It is important for those who are taking care of children, the elderly, and those with respiratory diseases to know the air quality around their area.

Currently, there is also concern about the new COVID-19 variant – XBB.1.16 or the Arcturus variant. The Ministry of Health Malaysia has reported 12 cases of Covid-19 XBB.1.16 or the Arcturus variant in the country as of 24 April 2023. The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported the global risk for the XBB.1.16 is low as compared to the current circulating variant. Even though there is an increased risk of infection or immune escape, there are no reported changes in the severity of the variant as compared to the earlier variant. WHO further states that the current information does not suggest that the XBB.1.16 pose an additional public health risk as compared to the current circulating variant.

There is no additional public health measure needed at the moment to prevent the spread of the virus. The Ministry of Health has suggested that the public continue practising the TRIIS (Test, Report, Isolate, Inform and Seek) if they experience any symptoms suggestive of COVID-19.

The public need to understand that the risk of COVID-19 and getting a severe infection is lower as compared to the early stages of the pandemic. There is no specific need to take extra precautions to prevent the spread of the disease. The public needs to understand the risk that they are facing. If they are from the high-risk group, i.e., those with co-morbid conditions, then they should take extra precautions, which means they should try to avoid crowded places and wear masks when they frequent these places. It is also important for people who show respiratory symptoms like flu and cough, to wear a mask, even though the COVID-19 test is negative. This is to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases. It is a good ethical practice that we should follow. As for the general population, there is no need for any extra precautions. It is a choice if you want to wear a mask in public areas.

Since there are two public health issues that we are facing now, i.e., Haze and COVID-19, there is a higher risk for people with co-morbid conditions, i.e., those with respiratory diseases. It is important for this group of people to take extra precautions when going outside.

The article was written by Dr Victor Hoe, it was part of the interview by Sin Chew Daily. Dr Hoe was also interviewed by RTM for their news on 23 April 2023 on the same subject.