Channel NewsAsia

Agencies hold drill to handle simulated Ebola case at Changi Airport

The Ministry of Health, Communicable Diseases Centre and Changi Airport Group held an emergency preparedness exercise on Thursday (Aug 14) to handle a mock case of suspected Ebola.

SINGAPORE: With cities worldwide on heightened alert over an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the Ministry of Health (MOH), the Communicable Diseases Centre (CDC) and Changi Airport Group held an emergency preparedness exercise at Changi Airport on Thursday (Aug 14).

They simulated the handling of a patient that had symptoms of Ebola, such as high fever and had abdominal pains. This is the first cross-agency exercise involving a Portable Medical Isolation Unit (PMIU).

There are five PMIUs in Singapore, and the unit is used for transferring people who are severely ill with signs of highly infectious diseases to hospital.

The scenario saw a doctor sounding the alarm after tending to a walk-in patient at a clinic at Changi Airport's Terminal 2. The doctor made a teleconference call with CDC and MOH to discuss whether to activate the PMIU. 

A team in protective gear turned up shortly after with the PMIU and the patient was placed in it to be sent to Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) via ambulance. The whole process takes one hour.

TTSH has previously been identified by the health ministry as the place where management of suspected Ebola cases will be centralised.

The PMIU can also be sent directly to planes on the tarmac to collect unwell passengers. Since the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the Health Ministry has worked with other agencies like Changi Airport Group to ensure they are prepared to use the PMIU for infectious cases. There are about five of such units in Singapore, but so far, none have had to be used.

Following the World Health Organisation's declaration of the Ebola epidemic as an international health emergency last week, MOH has assured the public that all public hospitals have put in place infection control procedures. It has also worked with Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) and Changi Airport Group on border health measures.

On Thursday, MOH debunked a Straits Times report that Singapore had its first suspected case of Ebola, saying the patient "did not fit the case definition". The Straits Times article has been removed.

The Ministry says risk of Ebola in Singapore remains low as there is limited human traffic between West Africa and Singapore. Said Mr Koh Peng Keng, Group Director of MOH's Operations Group: "Currently there are very few flights and passengers actually flying out from West Africa, so the volume of human traffic to Singapore has dropped further. For us, the public health risk is low and we also think that our conditions here are quite different from West Africa."

The Ebola situation has spun out of control in West Africa due to several factors, said Mr Koh. "First of all, the healthcare system is not so developed and the healthcare-seeking behaviour is also different. You hear of many patients who are ill but they don't go to the hospital, they would rather be cared for at home," he noted. "Also, up to 60 per cent of the transmission there comes from the funeral practices in West Africa. So while this is a very infectious disease, we think with the conditions here, with our healthcare system and behaviour, this is something we can put under control."

Nonetheless, hospitals are prepared with infection control procedures and isolation facilities. Said Mr Koh: "Our current protocol is that we have sent out alerts to all our GPs, polyclinic doctors and nurses so that they are alert and on the look-out. Any suspect cases, such as a patient who has come from an area with active Ebola transmission and they have the fever and other symptoms, then they will contact TTSH and will make the evaluation."

As for whether there are plans to bring the experimental Ebola drug Zmapp into Singapore, Proffessor Leo Yee Sin, Director of TTSH's Institute of Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology, cautioned against jumping the gun. "I think the whole world is looking at the development of whether or not this medication can be proven to be useful," she said, adding that Singapore would have to assess the risks and treatment strategies should there be an Ebola case here.

The Health Ministry says it will continue to monitor the situation and continually calibrate its measures. 

Tweet photos, videos and updates on this story to  @channelnewsasia