Outbreak response unit 'a good idea'

 Chee Hong Tat gave an update on the new task force to help the healthcare system detect and respond to outbreaks better.
Chee Hong Tat gave an update on the new task force to help the healthcare system detect and respond to outbreaks better. PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

MOH idea to set up infectious diseases 'Swat team' gets thumbs up from healthcare experts

The idea to have a quick-response "Swat team" to tackle outbreaks of infectious diseases in Singapore is a good one, experts have said.

The idea had come from a Ministry of Health (MOH) task force set up in the aftermath of the outbreak of hepatitis C at the Singapore General Hospital, which was linked to several deaths earlier this year.

The experts said that such a team would provide healthcare institutions with the expertise needed to deal with complex and unusual outbreaks.

The "Swat team" would also be able to provide an "unbiased assessment" of the situation, said Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases specialist from Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital.

"Doctors within the hospital... may be under inappropriate pressure to report findings that are less truthful but better for the hospital's reputation," he said.

On Monday, Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat said that the MOH task force was considering setting up a national-level "Swat team". It would comprise infectious disease experts who can be mobilised quickly to respond to outbreaks in any healthcare institution here.

The "Swat team" is one of four measures being considered by the task force, which was set up earlier this month.

Other measures include reviewing standard operating procedures, making better use of technology and reviewing the list of notifiable diseases under the Infectious Diseases Act.

Associate Professor David Lye, senior consultant at Tan Tock Seng Hospital's Infectious Diseases Department and Institute of Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology, said that similar response units have been implemented overseas.

He said: "An example of this would be the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), part of the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"The US has a lot of small hospitals and there are outbreaks every year, everywhere. The EIS attends to some of these outbreaks in smaller hospitals, as well as overseas. That is definitely a great idea and should be developed further."

For instance, the CDC last year sent EIS officers to West Africa in response to an Ebola outbreak there, in the largest international outbreak response in the CDC's history.

Professor Paul Tambyah, secretary-general of the Asia-Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, said that while it is not yet clear what form the Singapore "Swat team" will take, the EIS was "very effective". He said: "They get sent anywhere, and investigate anything - community outbreaks, hospital outbreaks."

But Dr Leong pointed out that for the "Swat team" to be effective, it must be given access to cutting-edge laboratory research.

"Science has changed over the last five years, and we can now get genetic signatures of the viruses concerned ," he said.

"This is often a research tool not available to hospitals. Yet, it is crucial and should be considered a country resource."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2015, with the headline 'Outbreak response unit 'a good idea''. Print Edition | Subscribe