The Ministry of Health (MOH) has reached out to 2,400 of the 3,500 Singaporeans affected by the HIV Registry data leak who are diagnosed with HIV and are still alive, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told Parliament yesterday.
But it was not able to reach everyone on the HIV Registry, which dates back to 1985, as many had dated contact information, he said.
Some were foreigners who had applied for work passes but never worked in Singapore. Others had previously worked in Singapore but are no longer here.
Of the 14,200 people whose personal information was leaked by American Mikhy Farrera Brochez on Jan 22, 8,800 were foreigners and the remaining 5,400 Singaporeans and permanent residents. Of the Singaporeans, 3,500 are alive.
Mr Gan said MOH's medical social workers identified the patients likely to require more support so that designated officers could exercise extra care when calling them. Counsellors were also on standby to speak to those in distress or who required more advice and support.
He noted that some affected individuals may prefer to discuss their concerns with those they are more familiar with, such as the medical social workers, nurses and doctors who have been supporting their ongoing care and treatment.
"We have arranged with the relevant public hospitals to have medical social workers and doctors on site to attend to them," said Mr Gan.
"Understandably, despite these efforts, some will continue to be concerned. Some may decline to return to care because of the fear of future disclosure. Some felt we should have just informed the affected individuals. A few wished they had not been called at all."
Mr Gan said medical social workers were themselves distressed by the news they had to break, and felt the anguish that the patients experienced when they were told.
He added that they had to conduct the calls carefully and gently, and be alert to signs of distress so that they could help the patients appropriately. The medical social workers have, at times, become the target of anger and blame, but still would do their best to support the affected persons, said Mr Gan.
"These reactions are not unexpected. They were the reasons we made a judgment call in 2016 not to make a public announcement, and in 2018 to inform only the affected patients," he added.
Several MPs asked how MOH will help to destigmatise HIV following the leak. Nominated MP Walter Theseira suggested changes to immigration and employment restrictions on foreigners with HIV.
Mr Gan said such policies are reviewed regularly, taking into account international practices and the concerns of Singaporeans. Some adjustments, like lifting the restriction on people living with HIV coming here for short-term stays, have been made over the years.
But he said the Government must be very cautious in approaching the issue as HIV remains "a very serious infectious disease". Restrictions on long-term stays remain in place.
Mr Gan said HIV testing and counselling services are more widely available, with 10 sites across the island offering anonymous testing.
He also said that MOH will continue to work with groups like Action for Aids to step up public education, stigma reduction, treatment and counselling, but that destigmatisation efforts have to cut across society.
"How each of us as individuals relates to persons with HIV also matters a lot," said Mr Gan.
"Here, I would like to appeal to Singaporeans to stand in support of these affected individuals and our efforts to fight the stigma against persons living with HIV."