Cleaners and stall owners worked hard to clean up Pek Kio Market and Food Centre yesterday, after an outbreak of gastroenteritis cases in the area prompted a two-day closure of the centre.
More than 180 cases of the viral illness, which has symptoms such as diarrhoea, vomiting, and fever, have been reported in the Owen Road area in the past week, said the authorities in a statement on Tuesday.
They found that the majority of cases involved people who lived near or visited the Owen Road area. Many of them had also patronised the Pek Kio market.
While the source of the outbreak is under investigation, the market has been closed for two days as a precautionary measure for thorough cleaning and disinfection. Such cleaning typically takes place every three months. The authorities also alerted nearby shops to clean surfaces that may be touched by customers.
When The Straits Times visited the centre yesterday morning, cleaners were scrubbing the walls, and steaming them. Hawkers were washing their utensils, crockery and their stall floors.
Stall owner Wendy Yeo, 60, who sells lontong and Indonesian kueh, estimated that she may lose $1,000 during the closure, but said she was not bothered about it. "As long as people are healthy, it's okay. Money can be earned back. If we are not well, we also can't sell," she said.
HOW THE VIRUS IS SPREAD
• Consuming contaminated food or drinks.
• Placing a hand in the mouth after touching surfaces or objects that are contaminated.
• Having direct contact with a person who is infected and showing symptoms, for instance by sharing eating utensils.
• Wash hands frequently, especially after toilet visits and before eating or preparing food.
• Wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly before consumption.
• Clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces thoroughly immediately after an episode of illness by using the proportion of one part of bleach to nine parts of water.
While they did not mind the cleaning, the hawkers voiced concerns that pigeons - a longstanding nuisance at the market - and rats could have spread the illness, which is sometimes known as gastric flu. They said they have raised these issues with National Environment Agency (NEA) officers. Ms Yeo cited how 10 pigeons may pick on food together at the same table.
Mr Yong Tat Cheen, 84, who has run a noodles stall there for over 40 years, said: "Once, when I came in to open the shop, there was a small rat in the sink. I took it and threw it away."
"Although cases of human infection from animal rotaviruses have been reported, they are very rare and tend to be isolated cases, rather than a huge outbreak," said infectious diseases expert Hsu Li Yang.
This is because the viruses are specific to the host, and seldom jump across species to cause infection, he said, adding that a probable cause of the outbreak is the consumption of contaminated food and drinks.
Mr Yong said stall owners like him have to do their part by handling food in a hygienic way.
Ms Michelle Seah, 52, who runs a clothing shop opposite the market, felt the same way. "They (the authorities) should check on the hawkers more often, because the safety of the food also depends on their individual hygiene," she said.
The outbreak came to light after Dr Angela Cheong, who runs a clinic at Block 45, Owen Road, alerted the Ministry of Health. She flagged the issue after seeing about 30 cases of gastroenteritis cases daily from May 16 - up from the typical five to 10 a day.
"I got suspicious when there were whole families coming in together," said the 51-year-old general practitioner who has been practising in the area for 20 years. She has treated 155 patients with the symptoms, and they ranged from about a year old to 80 years old.
Stall owners like Madam Chong Kiam Hong are afraid that patrons will not return, and predicted a 40 per cent loss in business in the days to come. Her worries, however, may be unfounded. Patrons of the hawker centre said they would go back once it reopens. "The prices are cheap, and the food is good. It's hard to find places like this," said cabby Chua Liat Hwee, 48.