Singapore health officials given ‘legal’ powers to stem threat from chikungunya fever outbreak


(eTN) – Stepping up its fight against the threat of another “foreign” virus, the Singaporean government has conferred legal powers to its public health administrators to “detain or isolate” confirmed or suspected cases of the chikungunya fever outbreak.

Announcing the appointment of Associate Professor Leo Yee Sin as a health officer, the Singapore government said in a statement that “it would facilitate efforts to ensure timely isolation of quarantine of patients who pose a public health threat” should they object to being admitted to a hospital.

Health authorities in the pristine clean island state are conducting “intensive” mosquito control operations including epidemiological investigations following confirmation of its outbreak among the “foreign colony” in Singapore’s Little India.

Since it was first detected on January 14, there are now a total of 10 locally transmitted cases admitted for observation in the Communicable Diseases Center (CDC) at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Confirmed a “new strain” of viral disease, it is transmitted in the same way as the dengue fever by aedes mosquitoes, a common mosquito – borne outbreak in the Southeast Asian region.

“This is the first local transmission of the disease,” said a spokeswoman from Singapore’s health ministry. “Previous cases were imported. The patients caught the virus overseas and brought it back to Singapore.”

Easily mistaken for the more common dengue fever in the region, the health ministry and the Environmental Health Institute have started screening residents and workers in the popular Little India enclave where there is a concentration of tourists from South Asia, and where previous known outbreaks have occurred.

Outbreak of the chikungunya fever in South Asia – most notably in India and the Indian Ocean islands – two years ago have raised fears it could have been brought into the island by travelers who traveled to the region, where Singapore’s previous cases were contracted.

However, investigations reveal the “foreign nationals” who contracted the fever locally have not traveled out of Singapore for several months, according to the health ministry.

“There is a need to be prepared for a similar outbreak here or in the region,” said Dr. Lisa Ng. “You can’t wait for a disease to be fatal before you take it seriously.”

Since chikungunya virus was first identified following an outbreak in Tanzania in 1952, there has been outbreaks in India and the Reunion islands in 2005, resulting in 238 deaths.

The Singapore Immunology Network (SignN) scientist who is studying the chikungunya virus, aims to improve current methods of identifying the virus and find a vaccine. “The aim is to improve current methods of identifying the virus and find a vaccine in addition to developing a non-intrusive saliva test.”

Singaporean Trade and Industry Minister S. Iswaran is paying close attention to the developments to ensure it does not affect preparations for the planned F1 night races, which Singapore will host in September.

Despite the threat to its tourism industry potentially driving tourists away, Minister Iswaran sees the island’s success in the biopharmaceutical industry. “Finding new cures and vaccines, immunology will contribute to Singapore’s economic growth by attracting interest and investments,” the minister said.

Singapore tourism is aiming to reach 10 million visitors in 2008.