HFMD risk not higher at mega childcare centres

Operators assure worried parents that measures will be in place to minimise risk of hand, foot and mouth disease

With cases of hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) rising this year, some parents have raised concerns over the risks posed by upcoming mega childcare centres.

In the first eight months of this year, HFMD cases roseby 35 per cent against last year.

Data from the Health Ministry, released weekly, shows 19,444 HFMD cases were reported from January to August, up from 14,388 in the same period last year.

In the week ending on Aug 29 alone, there were 533 cases - or about three every hour. Experts consider it an epidemic when more than 780 children a week are infected.

HFMD, which affects mostly children, is spread via bodily fluids like saliva. It is easily transmitted among toddlers, making pre- schools hot spots for the spread of the disease.

The five mega centres which will be ready by the end of next year can each take 300 to 500 children. They are meant to meet the high demand for childcare services. A centre in a Housing Board void deck usually admits about 100 children.

NO CROWDING

A large centre isn't a place where hundreds of children interact with each other in one single contiguous space throughout the day. Children are still separated into smaller classes and stringent health checks will still be conducted.

MY FIRST SKOOL GENERAL MANAGER ADELINE TAN

Mr Muhammad Irwan, reflecting the concerns of some parents and netizens, commented on The Straits Times' Facebook post about one of the mega centres, the E-Bridge centre in Punggol whose construction started last month. He wrote: "It's not a good idea... For a normal childcare centre, it is already chaotic when one child is infected by HFMD."

A Health Ministry spokesman said HFMD is "generally mild", noting that the predominant circulating strains this year are Coxsackieviruses Type A, which are usually mild. No severe case or death due to the disease has been reported in the past three years, he added.

NTUC's My First Skool, which will operate a megacentre in Sengkang which broke ground last month, and EtonHouse International's E-Bridge Pre-School said measures will be put in place to minimise cross-infection of HFMD. These include daily temperature taking and health checks, and regular sanitisation of centres.

An E-Bridge spokesman said its large centre in Punggol will have temperature-measurement equipment for mass health screenings - similar to those used at airports.

"The floor space per child is also more than double that of an average-size pre-school, reducing the chances of the spread of infections," she said. The centre is 5,000 sq m, or the equivalent of four Olympic-size swimming pools.

My First Skool general manager Adeline Tan said large centres have not been observed to be more susceptible to the spread of HFMD than smaller ones. The operator runs 120 centres, of which 12 can admit more than 200 children.

"A large centre isn't a place where hundreds of children interact with each other in one single contiguous space throughout the day. Children are still separated into smaller classes and stringent health checks will still be conducted," she said.

Credit controller Renee Koh, 33, who has two children aged four and seven, is confident that operators would do their best to prevent HFMD from spreading. She said: "Once, they spotted an ulcer in my daughter's mouth on a Friday and asked me to take her home. When the doctor gave the okay and I took her back to pre-school on Monday, the teachers asked me to check a second time. I think they're sometimes paranoid, but I also understand they're being cautious."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 06, 2015, with the headline 'HFMD risk not higher at mega childcare centres'. Print Edition | Subscribe