The independent committee looking into the spread of hepatitis C in Singapore General Hospital (SGH) has had its job expanded to include a review of the Ministry of Health's (MOH) actions in the matter.
Announcing this yesterday, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said: "The committee will also look at the processes in both SGH and the MOH to identify whether there are any gaps and areas that we can improve upon so that we can strengthen our system.
"I have also assured the committee that SGH and MOH will extend our full support so as to facilitate the review and to ensure that it is a very thorough review."
At least 21 kidney patients caught the hepatitis C virus while warded at the hospital's renal ward 67 between April and June. One more patient has the virus, but could be the index case that brought the virus to the ward. Their ages range from 24 to 70.
Eight of the patients have died, and five of the deaths could be linked to the infection.
When the news was announced earlier this month, it raised questions that have yet to be answered: how the virus was spread, could SGH have reacted faster, and why it took so long to release the information about the infections.
The hospital suspects the cause of transmission to be improper use of multi-dose vials, but has not been able to confirm this.
SGH was alerted to a possible outbreak of hepatitis C some time in May when seven renal patients tested positive for this virus within a four-week period. Typically, between two and four renal patients would have this virus in a year.
SGH told MOH about this only at end-August, briefed Mr Gan on Sept 25, and went public on Oct 6. Only last week did it start counselling for infected patients, who are mostly kidney transplant recipients, and their families.
SGH is in the process of recalling patients who stayed in wards 64A and 67 between January and June. No new cases have been found, after about 770 patients and staff were screened as of last Friday.
MOH has set up the independent committee of seven doctors headed by Professor Leo Yee Sin, clinical director of the Communicable Disease Centre at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, to find out how the bug was spread and to remedy any weakness in SGH's infection control. The committee has requested the help of more experts, including those from outside Singapore.
Speaking on the sidelines of the SingHealth President's Challenge 2015 Finale Event yesterday, Mr Gan said he supports the request as this would "ensure that the review will be a very thorough one".
"One of the key objectives of the Review Committee is also to identify areas where we can strengthen and where we can improve, so that we will learn from this experience and prevent similar incidents from happening in the future," he said.
He promised that MOH and SGH "will adopt an open attitude" as this is the only way to learn from the incident.
This article was first published on Oct 18, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.