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Health Ministry sets up taskforce to strengthen detection and response to outbreaks

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The Ministry of Health (MOH) has set up a seven-member taskforce to strengthen the detection and response to outbreaks, particularly those that are unusual and unfamiliar.

THE Ministry of Health (MOH) has set up a seven-member taskforce to strengthen the detection and response to outbreaks, particularly those that are unusual and unfamiliar.

Led by Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat, the taskforce comprises experts in infectious diseases, systems engineering and data science.

They are: Robert Chew, managing director of iGlobe Partners, a venture capital firm that primarily invests in technology companies; associate professor Angela Chow from Tan Tock Seng Hospital; associate professor Lim Poh Lian from Tan Tock Seng Hospital; Ng Chee Khern, second permanent secretary at MOH; associate professor Benjamin Ong, director medical services at MOH; associate professor Ong Biauw Chi, chairman of medical board at Sengkang Health; and Sharon Salmon, assistant director of nursing at the National University Hospital.

Speaking to the media on Friday afternoon, Mr Chee said the taskforce will start work next week and looks to complete its review of the current national notification and surveillance system for infectious diseases by mid-2016.

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He said along the way, certain areas that can be implemented earlier will be done so.

"We will look at our current processes. We will also look at what other countries have done, learn from international best practices, we will talk to our healthcare institutions and medical professionals and get their feedback on what we can do to improve the system."

Mr Chee, who is also the Minister of State for Communications and Information, added that the measures the taskforce is going to put in place "could also include legislative requirements that would have to be complied by all healthcare institutions". Mr Chee added that it is too early to give specifics.

A key part of how Singapore deals with infections requires the effort of everybody in the system, including frontline medical professionals and healthcare institutions, noted Mr Chee, who added that it is necessary to also support them.

This means the taskforce needs to put in place a national system as well that will allow the government to bring in additional resources if necessary to supplement what the hospitals have to deal with in cases of outbreaks, he said.

An independent committee tasked to investigate the hepatitis C outbreak in the renal ward of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) between April and June had found that lapses in infection prevention and control practices played a key role.

Other failings include SGH's failure to recognise the outbreak, inadequate investigations and delays in notifying higher authorities in the hospital and the ministry.

The outbreak affected 25 patients who contracted the illness, of which eight died. The committee had said the hepatitis C virus likely caused the deaths of seven of them.

The committee's report, released on Tuesday, was submitted to the MOH on Dec 5.

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