GPC wants clearer steps to detect, report outbreaks

A task force, headed by Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat, has been formed to boost infection control in all hospitals.
A task force, headed by Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat, has been formed to boost infection control in all hospitals.ST FILE PHOTO

The Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Health has called for a clearer protocol in detecting and reporting incidents like the hepatitis C outbreak in Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

Its chairman, Dr Chia Shi-Lu, said yesterday that the GPC welcomed the recommendations of the independent review committee that looked into the spread of the virus in SGH's wards 64A and 67. The outbreak affected 25 patients, eight of whom have died.

The GPC also supports the measures the committee recommended to improve infection control practices at hospitals, added Dr Chia, an orthopaedic surgeon at SGH.

He urged hospitals to adopt a more cautious approach even if it was not easy to determine the precise conditions that warrant raising the alarm. "It may be difficult to define alert or red lines for reporting, but in the light of this event, a more conservative perspective with low thresholds would be desirable," he said.

Dr Chia noted with concern that the exact cause of the outbreak is still unknown, but "this is not entirely unusual as for other similar cases elsewhere, it is often difficult to pinpoint the cause".

However, as the outbreak ceased after procedures at the hospital were tightened, it was most likely that a significant cause was related to its lapses in infection control practices, he said.

A task force, headed by Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat, has been formed to boost infection control in all hospitals, following the release of the committee's report on Tuesday.

Dr Chia, an MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC, said his GPC is awaiting more details from the Health Ministry on the framework to strengthen the handling of such matters. It will then study the proposed measures and give its feedback.

MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling, who is also a member of the GPC for Health, said the focus should be on minimising the risk of a similar outbreak happening again.

Jurong GRC MP Tan Wu Meng, another GPC member, said early recognition is crucial for diagnosing uncommon hospital-associated infections and outbreaks, and for calling in extra resources earlier.

"Modern hospitals today generate enormous amounts of data, lots of clinical observations of symptoms, physical check-ups, blood tests, and so on. But this data can be spread out over multiple departments - some digital, some on paper," he added.

"The future of outbreak surveillance should involve better use of electronic medical records, with inter-operable databases and big data analytics to help human experts pick up problems sooner."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2015, with the headline 'GPC wants clearer steps to detect, report outbreaks'. Print Edition | Subscribe