Defence against outbreaks boosted

SINGAPORE - Singapore has strengthened its defences against infectious diseases on many fronts, after overcoming the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) crisis a decade ago.

But the most important defence is to be psychologically prepared for any future outbreak, which could be more lethal and contagious than Sars, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday.

He was speaking at a Sars memorial event held by the Ministry of Health at the University Cultural Centre, 10 years to the day the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Singapore free of the disease, which infected 238 people and claimed 33 lives here.

"We owe it to every Singaporean to do our best to protect ourselves from any future outbreak," said Mr Lee at a simple but poignant ceremony.

Tears welled up in the eyes of many when Mr Lee read out the names of the five health-care workers who died in the line of duty, battling the then mysterious disease that had no cure. Equally moving was a video showing a survivor, a nurse, a grassroots leader and the wife of a doctor who died recalling their ordeals.

The experience has led Singapore to increase, for instance, its public health capacities.

Mr Lee cited two such improvements. One is the National Centre for Infectious Disease, with about 300 beds, that will be at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Expected to be ready by mid- 2018, it replaces the Communicable Disease Centre.

The Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health will do epidemiological research and build up national disease control capabilities. Singapore will also strengthen its partnerships with WHO and other international public health agencies, said Mr Lee.

On the home front, national agencies are kept vigilant with regular exercises. The entire system was "tested in a small way" and did well during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, he said.

He cautioned that with a more connected world today, "a new contagious disease will spread even more swiftly and widely, and no country can expect to be spared in a pandemic".

Ultimately, Singapore's most important defence is to be psychologically prepared and for people to remain calm and be socially responsible, he added.

Earlier, Mr Lee recounted the fear that gripped the nation, with people shunning contact with others and public spaces deserted.

But Singaporeans rallied to help in whatever way they could.

Above all, he said, "none were stronger or braver than our healthcare workers". He paid tribute to them, some of whom were not Singaporean. "We are forever grateful to these brave and selfless men and women."

Mr Lee recalled the five healthcare workers who died: Doctors Ong Hok Su and Alexandre Chao, nurses Hamidah Ismail and Jonnel Pabuyon Pinera, and hospital attendant Kiew Miyaw Tan. His voice choking with emotion, he said: "We remember and honour them always."

Calling Sars a defining moment for the nation, he said if a similar tragedy were to happen again, "I trust that we will support one another, and fight to win the battle just as we did with Sars".

The 400 guests - including former Sars patients, former ministers and health-care professionals - observed a minute of silence for those who died.

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who was then PM, said he teared up during the ceremony. "It was our most tragic moment but also our most glorious for the way we responded."

The Singapore Medical Association held a commemorative symposium last night. Its president Chin Jing Jih praised the less publicised health-care heroes: those in primary care like general practitioners and polyclinic staff who were the first to screen suspected Sars victims.

andreao@sph.com.sg

melpang@sph.com.sg


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