Medical Tourism In Singapore Needs A Careful Rethink

~ By David L K See~

The timely article "India's medical tourism could cause superbug to spread globally" ( TODAY May 9) referred to a new superbug that has emerged from India — in part because of medical tourism — with scientists saying there are almost no drugs to treat it.

With more people travelling to find less costly medical treatments, it is feared this new superbug could soon spread across the globe.

First detected in 2009 in the Indian capital of New Delhi, the bacteria is code-named NDM-1. Since then, NDM-1 cases have emerged in Britain, United States, Europe, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan.

In 2010, there were six detected cases of NDM-1 in Singapore. The first case was a Singapore resident who had sought medical treatment in India. The second case was a Bangladeshi national who had come to Singapore for medical treatment.

Of the remaining four cases, three were elderly patients but the fourth was in his 30s. As none of them had travelled abroad, it is likely that they had caught the NDM-1 superbug locally.

Way back in 2007, a Vietnamese man who came to Singapore for medical treatment was subsequently found to be infected with drug-resistant tuberculosis, or XDR-TB. Global concern over XDR-TB is also mounting, as it kills three in four of those infected.

The writing is on the wall. The March 2011 Academy of Medicine Annals had an editorial "The Dollars and Sense of Managing Drug-resistant Tuberculosis in Singapore" co-written by Dr Catherine Ong and Dr Paul Tambyah with this thought-provoking conclusion:

"The commercial forces promoting medical tourism in our country (Singapore) need to be regulated at a national level to curb the transmission of potentially lethal infectious diseases within our borders, lest we pay the price. It is simply not worth it."

Indeed, with a hot humid climate and being the second most densely-populated place on earth, our tiny island Singapore is particularly vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases.

It is time for our Health Ministry to provide detailed assurances to concerned Singaporeans on its pro-active measures to tackle such public health threats.