Insects are an inescapable part of life in Indonesia, but a recent infestation of one species has got many people itching and irritated. The latest scourge is tomcats, or rove beetles, which are being dislodged from their habitats near areas making way for development.
Many people have suffered acute dermatitis and swelling to the skin after coming into contact with the insects.
The rising number of such cases has led the Health Ministry to put public health centres across Java, the country’s most heavily populated island, on alert this week. By yesterday, reports had emerged of tomcat attacks in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
Quarantine officials at ports and airports in high-risk areas have been ordered to carry out fumigation to prevent an outbreak, Professor Tjandra Yoga Aditama, the ministry’s director-general for disease control and environmental health, said on Monday.
But he added that there was no need for people to panic, as the insects were not lethal.
The black-and-orange beetles, often no longer than 10mm, got their name because their slim bodies and curved rears resemble the F-14 Tomcat fighter jets once used by the United States Navy.
But unlike the aircraft that have since been retired from service, the beetles are still roving. An infestation was first reported in the middle of this month at a housing complex in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city.
Last week, more than 160 people in the city were reported to have sought treatment after falling prey. More cases were reported in nearby towns.
Soon, inflammations were reported in Yogyakarta and Bali. Local newspapers and TV stations devoted column inches and airtime to the threat as cases were reported elsewhere as well.
The ensuing alarm led officials to step in to call for calm, with Prof Tjandra explaining that investigations into the initial outbreak showed that patients had recovered within a week.
“We suggest people protect themselves by using insect spray,” he added.
Schools have begun teaching students how to identify and react to the tomcats.
Senior presidential staff Heru Lelono told the media there was nothing to worry about, although he acknowledged the initial itching could be bothersome.
He told of how his face had reddened after a visit to a rice field in Bali several months ago, but he recovered fully within a week after getting an injection and medication.
Entomologist Aunu Rauf of the Bogor Agricultural University said Tomcats “do not bite and do not sting.”
But most people mistakenly react to a beetle landing on their skin by crushing it, he noted. This puts them in contact with a potent toxin called pederin in the insect’s torso that causes the skin to redden and blister.
“Do not ever hold it, or kill the insect. Banish it carefully by blowing or with a piece of paper,” he cautioned.
Similar attacks have taken place in China, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Malaysia over the past decade. Lesser outbreaks have also been seen in East Java.
Rauf attributed the current outbreak to a number of factors: The harvest season, rising number of pests, and housing projects near padi fields and swampland make it more conducive for tomcats to breed and get closer to people.
Veterinary parasitology researcher Mohammad Yunus of Surabaya’s Airlangga University told Tempo magazine that the usual habitats of the tomcats, where the infestation first broke out in the city, had been destroyed to build an access road.
“They had to adapt once their living environment changed,” he said.
The fear is that as more fields give way to houses, such outbreaks will recur, unless people adapt in the way they deal with tomcats. But for now, the scientists expect the tomcat population to shrink soon as the dry season sets in.
The insect: Tomcat or rove beetle (paederus fuscipes)
What it looks like to some people: F-14 Tomcat fighter jet
What it does: It produces pederin, a toxic fluid that causes reddening and irritation when it comes in contact with human skin
Where it is usually found: Padi fields and swampy areas
How to handle it: Do not hold with bare hands or kill it. Carefully blow the insect away or use a piece of paper to do so. But if a beetle gets crushed and pederin gets on your skin, rinse the area immediately with soapy water several times. Also, wash clothes or sheets that come into contact with tomcat secretions. Symptoms generally appear 24 hours later.
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