Participants at consultation session discuss ways to battle dengue

Alice Chia Channel NewsAsia 29 Jan 15;

SINGAPORE: There were a total of 243 dengue cases from Jan 18 to 24 this year, which is an improvement from the peak of 898 cases seen in the first week of July last year.

However, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who was speaking at a consultation session organised by the ministry on Thursday (Jan 29), said he felt more can be done, especially at construction sites. Last year, mosquitoes were found breeding in 7.5 per cent of such sites. There were 88 dengue clusters associated with construction sites, with an average of 32 cases per cluster.

Participants at the consultation session suggested improving hygiene standards at the sites. Other topics discussed included the option of releasing mosquitoes infected with a particular bacterium Wolbachia, as a method to control the mosquito population.

This was mooted by the Government last year, and a panel of international and local experts appointed by the National Environment Agency supported the use of this method in Singapore.

They also recommended careful selection of the bacteria strain to use, a concern shared by participants at the session.

Associate Professor Vernon Lee from the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, said: "The strain has to be suited to the local environment. We want it to be able to compete with the existing mosquito population, so that it can actually then suppress the mosquito population locally."

Punggol South Women's Executive Committee member, Ms Khong Sow Cheng, said: "It is quite technical. I am in a grassroots organisation, so we are wondering how it can be possible to make it simpler to inform the public about all these things, because it is something very new and in the scientific books. We are quite afraid that it may be doing something harmful to the environment."

She also said that it might be good to set up a booth at public or community events and have scientists and experts to explain the new technology.

The Environmental Health Institute, under the National Environment Agency, is looking into setting up a research consortium for further studies into the use of Wolbachia.

An assessment will also be done on the impact of the use of such technology to suppress dengue, and this will be facilitated by independent consultants.

Following the session on Thursday, Dr Balakrishnan said in a post on his Facebook page that there is still much work to be done.

"We agreed on the need for a multi-pronged approach, including vector control, eradication of breeding sites, and protection of vulnerable people, public education and vaccination when the vaccines are proven to be safe.

"We will also have to conduct more trials, share data with the scientists and carefully consider interventions like Wolbachia to reduce the mosquito population."

The ministry will take into account the participants' views in its speech for the Committee of Supply debate, which will take place in March. During the session, the Singapore Parliament will discuss the estimated budgets of the ministries and their plans for the financial year.

About 25 people, including academics, doctors and community leaders, attended the session on Thursday. The consultation was the third in five sessions, to gather feedback from the public on various environmental issues.

- CNA/xk