SPEECH BY MR GAN KIM YONG, MINISTER FOR HEALTH, AT THE OFFICIAL OPENING OF APASL LIVER WEEK 2013, HELD ON 7 JUNE 2013 AT SUNTEC SINGAPORE

Professor Lim Seng Gee, Chairman of APASL Liver Week 2013,

Members of the organising committee,

Invited speakers,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning.

Introduction

1.       It is my pleasure to join you this morning at the Asian Pacific Association for the Study of the Liver, also known as APASL, Liver Week 2013. It is an honour that Singapore host this year’s Meeting and I would like to extend a warm welcome to all, especially our overseas speakers, delegates and guests.

2.       I am equally pleased to note that the Gastroenterological Society of Singapore has collaborated with the APASL, and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) to organise this Meeting and to deliver a comprehensive scientific programme on the important subject of hepatology.

3.       APASL is one of the three major liver associations in the world – the other two being the American Association for the Study of the Liver Disease (AASLD) and the European Association for Study of the Liver (EASL). The Singapore chapter was incepted more than three decades ago, in August 1978.

4.       The objective of the APASL scientific meetings is to foster teaching, research and the dissemination of knowledge in all aspects of diseases of the liver and biliary system. The annual APASL meetings have also grown in size and significance through the years, and are today comparable to the annual meetings of the AASLD and the EASL. Together, these meetings represent the three most significant liver meetings globally.

Global viral hepatitis

5.       The World Health Organisation recognises Hepatitis B and C is a global health problem leading to chronic diseases in hundreds of millions of people, and one of the most common causes of liver cirrhosis and cancer.[1] Additionally, according to statistics from Coalition to Eradicate Viral Hepatitis in Asia Pacific (CEVHAP), 2 billion people worldwide have been infected with Hepatitis B and more than 350 million people live with a chronic form of the disease.

 6.       Hepatitis B and C belong to the category of communicable diseases which transcend geographical borders and have become major diseases affecting mankind today. In Singapore, Hepatitis B is the most common cause of liver diseases and liver cancer. Thus, it is imperative for us to take further actions towards the prevention and better control of these diseases.

 7.       Singapore has been relatively successful in the prevention and control of Hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection among children. This is mainly attributed to our National Childhood Immunisation Programme (NCIP) and on-going public health education efforts. The Hepatitis B immunisation was first introduced to our NCIP in October 1985 and the use of Medisave was allowed in 1987[2] to keep it affordable. Since 2005, Singapore has achieved a high vaccination coverage of more than 95% in young children. This has led to a very low incidence of HBV infection among children and adolescents. According to the National Seroprevalence Survey 2008 – 2010, the prevalence of chronic HBV infection was zero in children aged 1 – 4 years. Among children and adolescents aged 5 – 17 years, the prevalence of chronic HBV infection was 0.4%. In addition, Hepatitis B screening is offered to key populations such as pregnant women, blood donors and healthcare workers. Unvaccinated adults are encouraged to undergo Hepatitis B immunisation.

 8.       Over the last decade, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) has conducted public education and health talks to increase awareness on HBV. Educational materials were also distributed at polyclinics to educate the public on Hepatitis B infection and the importance of vaccination. These efforts have contributed to raising awareness of the disease among the public, especially those who may be at risk of contracting HBV.

Singapore’s biomedical sciences initiative

9.       While Singaporeans enjoy access to a good healthcare system and we were ranked the world’s healthiest nation according to a Bloomberg survey last year, we are starting to see new disease patterns, largely as a consequence of globalisation, our rapidly ageing population and changing lifestyles.

 10.     Therefore, we cannot rest on our laurels. We need to continue to innovate and find new ways to address our healthcare challenges. We will need to continually invest in research to help us better understand the diseases and develop improved, more cost-effective diagnoses and treatments for patients. In this respect, Asia has experienced rapid growth in driving translational and clinical research (TCR) activities, encouraged by various initiatives and incentives from the countries in this region. In Singapore, the Biomedical Sciences (BMS) initiative was launched in 2000 to develop the BMS cluster as one of the key pillars of Singapore’s economy. 

11.     Our investments in Research & Development (R&D) have grown over the years and we have recently committed S$16.1 billion to support research, innovation and enterprise activities from 2011 to 2015. Of this, S$3.7 billion has been earmarked for BMS research. These investments are largely channelled into translational and clinical research to understand underlying factors of diseases and develop better treatments. The investments also aim to enhance existing BMS research infrastructure, and in line with the theme of today’s meeting – “Transforming Science to Clinical Practice” – to translate research findings into meaningful applications to benefit our patients.

Singapore’s research in hepatitis B

12.     I am pleased to note that researchers in the field of heptalogy have received significant research funding from the National Medical Research Council, and A*STAR’s Biomedical Research Council. One of the projects in the works is by Professor Lim Seng Gee, Chairman of APASL Liver Week 2013. Professor Lim has been examining the role and development of Hepatitis B viral behaviour that leads to chronic Hepatitis B, and his latest project will examine how the combination of pegylated interferon and nucleoside analogues drugs can eradicate chronic Hepatitis B. His efforts to discover better treatment strategies with new therapeutic agents will contribute towards the goal of eradicating viral hepatitis.

Singapore - a leading biomedical sciences cluster in Asia

13.     Collaborations between our public sector researchers and industry can help facilitate translation of our research discoveries into a pipeline of industry-ready products. Already, over 100 global biomedical sciences companies have established their business operations in Singapore. These include companies such as Bayer, Abbott, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck Sharp & Dohme, Pfizer, Roche, Becton Dickson, Medtronic, Siemens and Hill-Rom. For companies looking to improve R&D productivity and accelerate the commercialisation process, Singapore is the choice location to develop solutions to impact the future of global healthcare because of its strong R&D capabilities, good geographical location and extensive networks with regional markets.

Conclusion

14.     In closing, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the dedication and achievements of all professionals involved in the research of liver disease and to develop improved, more cost-effective diagnoses and treatments for our patients. I would like to encourage you to continue your good work and I hope that more will join in the endeavour to seek improved patient outcomes through research.

 15.     On this note, I am pleased to declare the “APASL Liver Week 2013” officially open. I wish you a fruitful Meeting ahead. Thank you.

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[1] The World Health Assembly’s Resolution on Viral Hepatitis (WHA63.18) recognised, for the first time, viral hepatitis as a global health issue.

[2] With effect from 1 June 2013, Hepatitis B vaccination, as part of the NCIP, is fully subsidised at the polyclinics for children born in Singapore (the subsidy is pegged at 50% for PRs).