Singapore could prepare better for outbreaks of disease: Index

Passengers arriving at Changi Airport from Qatar in 2014 having their temperatures screened by a thermal scanner as a precaution against the spread of the Middle East respiratory syndrome.
Passengers arriving at Changi Airport from Qatar in 2014 having their temperatures screened by a thermal scanner as a precaution against the spread of the Middle East respiratory syndrome.ST FILE PHOTO

Republic, at No. 24, ranks below Thailand and Malaysia in global health security index

When it comes to how prepared countries are for major infectious disease outbreaks, Singapore ranks below Thailand and Malaysia, and above Indonesia, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

The EIU's Global Health Security Index released last Friday found that no country is fully prepared for a pandemic.

And only 13 countries in the world, including Thailand and South Korea, are categorised as "most prepared".

Singapore, ranked 24th out of 195 countries, falls into the next category of nations that are "more prepared" for such outbreaks.

The United States was ranked first, followed by Britain and the Netherlands.

The study looks at six categories - prevention, detection, response, health system, commitment to improve, and vulnerability to biological threats - and assesses preparedness through 140 related questions.

The area that pulled Singapore's scores down was its commitment to improving national capacity, financing and adherence to norms.

For this, it was placed in the bottom half, at 101.

It scored best for its ability to rapidly respond to and mitigate the spread of an epidemic, standing 11th in the world.

Singapore scored maximum marks for biosafety, data integration, linking health and security authorities, risk communication, trade and travel restrictions, and infrastructure.

At the other extreme, it received zero marks for cross-border agreements on public and animal health emergencies, communication with healthcare workers during an emergency, exercising response plans and, under the prevention section, the "dual-use of research and culture of responsible science".

Thailand was the only non-high income country to make it to the top tier, beating countries like Sweden and Denmark with its sixth-place ranking.

The report gave the example of how Thailand was able to stop the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) from spreading in 2015.

Mers affected 186 people in South Korea and killed 38.

In June 2015, Thailand confirmed and immediately notified the World Health Organisation (WHO) that it had an imported case.

The report said: "Thailand was able to stop its first Mers case - and each subsequent confirmed case - with no further spread.

"Thailand's success in identifying and stopping Mers is just one example of both the value of health security capacity building and the critical role that a strong healthcare system can play in stopping outbreaks at the source."

It added that "Thailand is, beyond a doubt, an international leader in health security".

The health index took 2½ years to finalise, and involved more than 100 researchers and reviewers.

Ms Priya Bapat, project manager of the EIU study, said: "We hope the index will be a tool for leaders to make effective policy decisions."

To ensure the accuracy of the index, the EIU said, all countries were provided with an opportunity to review and comment on the preliminary results.

When asked for a comment, the Ministry of Health said the WHO had last year "agreed that Singapore has demonstrated strong leadership and a highly developed capacity to detect and respond to potential public health emergencies".

The spokesman added: "Nevertheless, we will continue to strengthen our capabilities to prevent, detect and respond promptly and effectively to public health threats, and address any gaps that may exist."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2019, with the headline 'S'pore could prepare better for outbreaks of disease: Index'. Print Edition | Subscribe