Singapore

Singaporeans must be ready if Wuhan virus hits home

Concern mounts as death toll in China triples to 17 in just a day and confirmed cases pass the 500 mark

As the death toll linked to the mysterious Wuhan virus almost tripled from six to 17 in just a day, Singapore yesterday set up a multi-ministry task force to prepare for the coming storm.

"While we take all the preventive measures, it is inevitable that we will see a potential case coming into Singapore, sooner or later," said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, who is chairing the task force, at a media briefing yesterday.

"Therefore, it is important for us to ensure that we're able to mount an effective response."

Three more suspected cases were reported yesterday - two children who are Chinese nationals and an elderly Singapore woman - bringing the total to 10 so far.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) said the boys, aged three and four, and the 78-year-old woman had pneumonia and a history of travel to China.

They were admitted for further assessment and treatment, and isolated as a precaution.

They were in stable condition and are being tested for the 2019-nCoV virus.

The previous seven suspected cases all tested negative.

The task force will meet for the first time today with the involvement of various ministries including Transport, Education and Manpower.

Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the task force with Mr Gan, said Singapore must be ready to mount all its resources to defend and protect the country against the virus as the situation evolves rapidly.

Health officials in China have warned the outbreak has reached a "critical stage" as the virus mutates and continues to spread to more provinces, territories and countries.

Apart from the 17 deaths in Wuhan as of yesterday, China has confirmed at least 540 infected cases, with 444 of them in Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital.

Confirmed cases have also been reported in Taiwan, Japan, Macau, Thailand, Vietnam and the US.

The confirmation that the coronavirus can be spread between humans has heightened fears of the number of cases soaring, especially as hundreds of millions of people travel across or out of China during the Chinese New Year holidays.

Also of great concern is the mysterious nature of the virus. Though scientists have determined that it is part of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) family, its origin is still unknown.

There is no vaccine yet for the virus, which is mutating even as it spreads farther afield.

As Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, went into "lockdown" yesterday by imploring people not to travel into or out of the city of 11 million, Singapore's MOH also advised people here not to travel to Wuhan.

MOH advised all travellers to monitor their health closely for two weeks after returning to Singapore and to seek medical attention promptly if they feel unwell.

They should also inform their doctors of their travel history.

Temperature screening at Changi Airport was also expanded yesterday to cover all inbound travellers on flights arriving from China.

Mr Wong said that the seriousness of the situation called for a "whole-of-government, even whole-of-Singapore, response".

This will include defensive measures at schools and workplaces, and ensuring economic continuity.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) said yesterday that preschools and student care centres had been issued advisories to ensure the well-being of children and staff.

"This includes frequent washing of hands, especially before eating or handling food, after toilet visits, or when hands are dirtied by respiratory secretions after coughing or sneezing," said its spokesman.

Parents are reminded not to send their children to school if they are sick. Any child or staff member who is unwell are advised to seek medical treatment promptly.

The ministry also said it is working closely with community-based and residential facilities, including welfare homes and disability homes, to ensure the necessary precautions are taken.

Asked if the Wuhan virus is as dangerous as the Sars virus that hit Singapore in 2003, Mr Gan said: "We do not know many of the details of the virus yet as it is a novel virus but a lot of investigation is going on.

"It's better for us to take precaution and pre-empt the risks... and to continue to monitor the situation because it is evolving very rapidly."

Mr Wong also reminded Singaporeans not to be complacent. He said that those who fall ill should practise social responsibility, especially with Chinese New Year around the corner.

"If you have any symptoms, please do not go out. See the doctor immediately to get treatment. Be isolated if necessary," he said.

In a Facebook post last night, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said: "Although Singapore has not seen a confirmed case, we must be ready to mount an effective response when it happens...

"Let us stay vigilant, as we roll out precautionary measures to protect our people."

MEDICAL & HEALTH