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    Dec 29, 2015

    'Swat team' for disease outbreaks here mooted

    A TASK force set up by the Ministry of Health (MOH) earlier this month has identified four ways to help healthcare institutions better respond to unusual infections, such as the hepatitis C outbreak that happened at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) earlier this year.

    The four ways are: reviewing standard operating procedures (SOPs), making better use of technology, relooking the list of notifiable diseases under the Infectious Diseases Act, and examining measures to strengthen capabilities to respond to outbreaks in Singapore.

    One idea is to set up a national-level "Swat team" of infectious diseases experts, Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat said yesterday.

    These will be people who can be mobilised at short notice to respond to outbreaks in any healthcare institution. This team could comprise members who come from different institutions in Singapore, including hospitals, universities and government agencies.

    Mr Chee, chairman of the task force, gave this update on the group's preliminary findings at the launch of an SG50 event on how Singapore has overcome various infectious diseases over the years.

    The task force, set up early this month to look into the processes for handling infectious disease outbreaks, was convened in the aftermath of the hepatitis C outbreak at SGH between April and June.

    To date, 25 patients who were warded at SGH have been diagnosed with the same family of hepatitis C virus. Eight patients have died, with five deaths possibly linked to the virus.

    An independent review committee found that while there were solid reporting procedures in place for well-known infectious diseases and epidemics, these were not effective in catching an "unusual and unfamiliar" outbreak like the hepatitis C infections.

    The way forward is not in adding more rules and procedures, Mr Chee said, but balancing key operations and patient care with the need to keep SOPs simple, and helping medical professionals focus on their core responsibilities and to comply with existing infection control protocols.

    "While professional judgment remains central to outbreak detection and response, this should be supplemented with IT systems and data analytics to facilitate reporting, enhance the recognition of patterns and improve the detection of weak signals," said Mr Chee, who is also Minister of State for Communications and Information.

    Currently, most measures to prevent and control infectious diseases in Singapore come under the Infectious Diseases Act, including hepatitis C. The Act includes provisions for the director of medical services of MOH to get patient information from doctors to investigate an outbreak, and to fine or jail those who lie about donating infected blood, for example.

    "The task force will be careful about the downsides of adding more reporting and administrative burden for our healthcare institutions and medical professionals," Mr Chee said.

    "What we want is to encourage and enable medical professionals to report cases which they come across by providing clearer guidelines and simplifying the reporting process where possible, for example by having a direct link from the laboratory to MOH on positive cases."