Hepatitis C outbreak: WP weighs in with recommendations for new MOH taskforce

A patient undergoing dialysis at the Renal Dialysis Centre at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH).
A patient undergoing dialysis at the Renal Dialysis Centre at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH).ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - The Workers' Party (WP) suggested on Wednesday that a retired healthcare professional be appointed as a joint head of the task force set up to strengthen infection control in all hospitals.

It should be "co-led by a respected, retired healthcare professional to ensure that recommendations are formed from a perspective of sufficient independence from the existing organisation structure", the opposition party said in a statement.

The task force, recommended by the independent review committee that examined the hepatitis C outbreak in Singapore General Hospital (SGH), is to be helmed by Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat.

The committee's report, released on Tuesday, followed the outbreak of hepatitis C that contributed directly to the death of seven patients at the hospital. The death of an eighth patient could not be linked directly to hepatitis C.

In its statement, the WP also noted that the committee's report showed the notification process was flawed and needed an overhaul.

But, it added, it was not calling for a Committee of Inquiry (COI) at this stage "because at the outset, we argued against a two-track process of having an Independent Review Committee review followed by a COI investigation".

It, however, wants the task force to look at more definite roles for the different healthcare agencies and a more specific timeline for higher-ups to be notified in the event of a potential outbreak.

The committee's report did not go into details on these matters, but the WP said "there should be a clock that starts ticking from when an infection is suspected to when it is verified, announced and responded to".

It added: "The ideal role of the healthcare cluster/group in such incidents should be taken up by the taskforce" as the report did not say when organisations like SingHealth should come into the picture in situations similar to that at SGH.

The hepatitis C outbreak in SGH affected 25 patients, eight of whom have died. The hospital started looking into the high number of patients with hepatitis C in mid-May and briefed the Health Ministry's director of medical services on Sept 3. He ordered more investigations to be done before informing the Health Minister on Sept 18.

The WP said the committee's report "concludes that the time lapse" from Sept 3 to Sept 18 "was justified by the need to conduct more investigation to ascertain the severity and extent of the outbreak".

"In so doing, the report may be setting a precedent and an implicit guideline for the timeliness of alerting the Minister and the public when such incidents happen," it added.

Hence, the WP's call for a more specific timeline for alerting the higher-ups of an outbreak.