SINGAPORE - The Health Ministry (MOH) wants more powers to curb the spread of infectious diseases here, including stopping individuals who break quarantine from leaving the country, and turning back visitors with high-risk of yellow fever without first offering vaccination.
Instead of tracking cases, carriers or contacts of infectious diseases in person, the ministry also wants to be able to carry out surveillance remotely, such as through phone calls or video-conferencing.
MOH, which is seeking public feedback on these changes, said on Tuesday (June 26) that as a major global trade and travel hub, it is imperative for Singapore to remain vigilant to new and emerging infectious diseases, such as Avian Influenza, Ebola, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
In coming up with the amendments to the Infectious Diseases Act, MOH said it looked at recent public health threats, including the death of a Bangladeshi worker here in 2017 due to the respiratory disease diphtheria, and the yellow fever outbreak in Brazil, which has affected more than 400 and killed more than 100 since July 2017.
One key proposal is to stop high-risk individuals who break isolation or movement restriction orders from leaving the country and to isolate them. This will better reduce the risk of transmissions, compared with the current practice of arresting them.
There are an average of about two such cases a year, said MOH, which cited the example of a patient who repeatedly absconded from Communicable Disease Centre in 2014 while being treated for tuberculosis. The patient was eventually arrested by the police and charged.
There will also be a more calibrated approach in restricting the movement of cases or carriers. Those who pose a lower risk of transmission may be allowed to visit certain places without strict home quarantine, and to continue working instead of a blanket stop-work order.
Currently, non-citizens from yellow-fever affected countries entering Singapore have to be vaccinated against yellow fever. Otherwise, they will be subjected to vaccination, isolation or surveillance here.
The MOH wants to have discretionary powers to return unvaccinated non-citizens from yellow-fever affected countries to his/her place of embarkation without first offering vaccination, isolation or surveillance, saying this this is in line with international practice.
An acute viral disease which is transmitted by mosquitoes and can be fatal, yellow fever is found mainly in Africa and Central and South America. There have not been any cases here.
Experts said the proposed changes are timely.
"Modern surveillance using calls or video calls would allow more potential contacts to be screened than a traditional in-person examination," said Associate Professor Alex Cook, Vice Dean (Research) at the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.
Professor Dale Fisher, a senior consultant at the National University Hospital's Division of Infectious Diseases said that a risk-calibrated surveillance approach is not only more convenient but should also be less stressful for the individual.