This is my letter to the Straits Times forum editor, which got published today. While it was largely unedited, one of the key points — which was actually a suggestion by an overseas Singaporean friend — was cut out. The edited text is in red.
For my more detailed proposal, click here.
13 April 2009
The Forum Editor
The Straits Times
It took almost three days from the time the first food poisoning cases from the Geylang Serai rojak stall were reported on Apr 1 to the time officials closed down the stall on Apr 4.
According to the Straits Times report (”Hospitals and GPs have system to track outbreaks”, ST, Apr 8), it was only at 10pm on Apr 3, after doctors at Changi General Hospital noticed a surge of patients with similar symptoms of food poisoning, that the Ministry of Health (MOH) was informed about this outbreak.
MOH has asserted that there is an “established system of surveillance and reporting of mass food poisoning cases”.
Unfortunately it appears this system was neither fast nor effective enough to nip this outbreak in the bud. Lives could have been saved if the authorities had been alerted earlier.
A major gap in this system is that it relies on individual physicians to spot trends before reporting to MOH. If 10 patients go to 10 different doctors or hospitals, how can we expect any trends to be spotted?
I believe it is possible to develop a system to effectively alert the authorities of food poisoning outbreaks. It will require a multi-agency coordination effort and an investment in technology.
An Integrated Food Contamination Reporting System (IFCRS) could provide all doctors with a web-based interface to report all cases of food poisoning that they treat. The report could be as simple as stating who was taken ill, what the suspected food was, when the incident took place, and where the stall is located. Consumers who fall sick after eating food could also file a similar report into IFCRS. IFCRS will also make it easier for the authorities to get in contact with the victims to conduct their investigations.
Once the reports are entered into IFCRS, it can analyse the data and automatically sound the alarm bell when a trend is detected. The alerts could be sent to MOH, the National Environment Agency and the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority for coordinated action.
IFCRS could be integrated with the current Electronic Medical Records Exchange system so that doctors do not have to key in data into two systems.
Isolated food poisoning cases may not constitute a national concern, but three deaths and over 150 taken ill should surely be a wake-up call to improve the reporting system for food poisoning cases.