Non-transparency over hep C outbreak extremely serious

Singapore Democrats

The SDP sends our condolences to the bereaved families of those who died from the recent Hepatitis C outbreak at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) as well as to those who are infected by this serious viral infection.$CUT$

We look forward to an expeditious and comprehensive investigation into how the episode occurred and, subsequently, deteriorated and what steps are being taken to prevent future mishaps.

What is disturbing, however, is the non-transparent manner in which the incident was handled by the Government. Information about the outbreak apparently first emerged between April 17 and May 14 this year when the first five cases of the hepatitis C infections were reported by the SGH to the Ministry of Health (MOH).

The SDP appreciates the difficulty in distinguishing between acute and chronic infections of hepatitis C in some of these cases, as explained by the MOH in its statement today. But even if it was only in August that the MOH was informed that cases were suspected to be linked, it would have been aware of the first outbreak in April. And yet the public was not informed.

Most of these patients were apparently transplant recipients who, according to the Singhealth website, are routinely screened for hepatitis pre-transplant. Thus, their conversion from negative to positive would have been an indicator of an acute or subacute infection.

Also, it appears that infection control reviews may have been conducted from at least June 2015 for patients in the affected wards. Thus, patient safety as well as safety of the blood supply were potentially compromised by delays in notification of the general public, especially those vulnerable patients who might have gone through the affected units.

This is because individuals who may have been recently infected with the virus and incubating it may have gone on to donate blood without knowing that they were in the “window period”. This is a potentially extremely serious situation.

It is our understanding that the outbreak is the among the most widespread in medical history. Yet the MOH kept the matter under wraps and did not keep the public informed. This is in marked contrast to the SARS Epidemic in 2003 when the Government handled the matter with much more transparency.

The secretiveness in this episode is unwarranted as the public has the right to know – and the Government the obligation to inform the public – of such a life-and-death matter. The management of the incident by the Government raises two important questions:

One, why was the public not informed when the outbreak was recognised and investigations commenced in May-June 2015 despite the potential risks to other patients?

Two, was the withholding of the information a political consideration?

The Government needs to answer these questions and account to the people over the matter.