SINGAPORE: When she met with Singapore’s first severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) patient 17 years ago, Dr Brenda Ang was not wearing any protective equipment.
“It (SARS) was unknown, she just came in like any ordinary person,” said the senior consultant with the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID).
The country was ill-prepared for the outbreak at the time, she said, noting there were not enough isolation rooms and efforts then were based out of the old Communicable Disease Centre compound on Moulmein Road – which has since been replaced by the NCID.
The new facility is better placed to handle the Wuhan coronavirus situation, she noted.
The NCID, which officially opened in September last year, has more than 330 isolation rooms at its Jalan Tan Tock Seng location.
Between November 2002 and July 2003, SARS affected 8,098 people worldwide, resulting in 774 deaths across 17 countries.
In Singapore, 238 were infected, resulting in the deaths of 33 people here.
For her work in tackling the SARS crisis, Dr Ang received the National Day Award (Medal of Valour) and the Courage Medal.
Dr Ang - who also chairs Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s infection control committee – also played a role in controlling the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. Eighteen people died in that outbreak here.
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THE CURRENT SITUATION
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak a "global emergency".
As of Saturday morning, there were more than 11,000 confirmed cases of Wuhan coronavirus worldwide, with 258 reported deaths, all in China.
Singapore now has 16 confirmed cases of the virus, including a 47-year-old Singaporean who travelled to Wuhan with her family.
In dealing with the virus, Singapore has learned many lessons from dealing with SARS 17 years ago, she said.
“Each outbreak is different, but the core principles remain the same.”
These include “very strict compliance with infection control measures”, as well as ensuring accurate information gets disseminated to stem rumours and misinformation.
“Part of the reaction to any outbreak response is managing fears on the ground, as well as coming up with relevant recommendations,” she noted.
For example, while frontline staff at NCID such as doctors and nurses - as well as others such as security staff who may also have to deal with patients - may need to wear masks, this is not necessary for everyone.
“If you’re in finance, you don’t need to wear a mask,” she said.
While morale is generally high, she acknowledges that there are concerns among staff who are dealing with the current coronavirus situation.
“There are fears, especially for those who didn't go through SARS,” said Dr Ang.
“We have a few SARS veterans here. One of the things I said at the first briefings (for the Wuhan coronavirus) was don’t worry, we have been through this before. We can handle it.”
“I saw Singapore's first SARS case, I’m still alive and standing,” she said.
The work of handling patients cannot be just be left to junior staff, she said, adding senior staff including consultants must also be seen to be doing their part.
Senior anesthetists were among the first to volunteer to be on call during the SARS crisis in 2003, she noted.
“Seniors cannot just be hiding in their offices, they have to be there.”
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On how widespread the Wuhan coronavirus is likely to be, Dr Ang said current literature suggests that even people who are exposed to the virus do not necessarily get infected.
“It probably isn’t that infectious, (even though) people are wearing surgical masks all over the place.”