Speech by Mr Gan Kim Yong, Minister for Health, at The Plague Fighter Dr Wu Lien-Teh International Conference and Exhibition, 5 Apr 2014

His Excellency Mr Duan Jielong, Ambassador of the People's Republic of China to the Republic of Singapore

Professor Phua Kok Khoo, Director, Institute of Advanced Studies, Nanyang Technological University

Professor Alan Chan, Dean, College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Science, Nanyang Technological University

Dr Alex Ooi, Secretary General, Dr Wu Lien-Teh Society

Distinguished guests and speakers

Ladies and gentlemen

 

Introduction

1.         Good morning. I am happy to join you this morning at the opening of the Conference and Exhibition on Dr Wu Lien-Teh. I would like to thank the Nanyang Technological University’s Institute of Advanced Studies, Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, Dr Wu Lien-Teh Society (Penang), the Singapore China Friendship Association and the Harbin Medical University for inviting me today.

Life of Dr Wu Lien-Teh

2.         I am sure many of you are familiar with the life and achievements of Dr Wu Lien-Teh. Born in Penang in 1879, he went on to do his medical studies at Cambridge University on the prestigious Queen’s Scholarship, before returning to conduct research and private practice in Malaya in 1903.  He travelled to China in 1908 and was appointed Vice-Director of the Imperial Army College in Tianjin.  In 1910, a pneumonic plague broke out which eventually claimed the lives of 60,000 victims in Manchuria.  Dr Wu was tasked to control the outbreak.

3.         Pneumonic plague is the most serious form of plague. It can spread from person to person, and if left untreated, is almost always fatal. It has caused major plague epidemics throughout history, resulting in millions of deaths.

4.         Fortunately, nowadays, plague can be treated with antibiotics, but at that time, Dr Wu faced the challenge of dealing with plague before the advent of modern antibiotics. Many of the control measures he took then are still used in controlling outbreaks of infectious diseases in our modern society. Isolation of cases and use of face-masks prevented others from being infected, and ultimately led to the successful ending of the plague outbreak in Manchuria in 1911.

5.         For his work on pneumonic plague and for identifying the source of disease transmission during the Manchurian plague epidemic, Dr Wu Lien-Teh had the honour of being the first Malayan Chinese nominated to receive the Nobel Prize in 1935. Dr Wu went on to become the founding father of modern medicine for China by modernizing China’s medical services and medical education; establishing the Manchurian Plague Prevention Service and set up some 20 modern hospitals, laboratories and research institutions, including the Beijing and Harbin Medical Universities. He also initiated the formation of the Chinese Medical Association and established the first national quarantine service in China.

Singapore’s Pandemic Preparedness and Response Plan

6.         Today, at the exhibition, you will have the opportunity to view some of Dr Wu’s private collection of 200 historically important photographs which vividly depict his work in China. Although we do not hear of plague in Singapore these days, as you take a look at the images on display, you will be reminded about Singapore’s own encounter with the SARS 11 years ago.

7.         During the SARS epidemic in 2003, we had to use one major general hospital to manage SARS cases and divert all other patients to other hospitals. Our hotels and businesses which depend on the tourism industry plunged as tourists and business travellers stayed away from Singapore.

8.         Learning from the SARS epidemic, Singapore has strengthened its preparedness against pandemics. We increased the isolation room capacity in all hospitals, drew up pandemic preparedness plans, and stockpiled face masks, other personal protective equipment, antiviral drugs and vaccines. Various Ministries and government agencies also drew up their preparedness plans as a pandemic calls for a whole of government response and indeed a whole of society response. Regular exercises were carried out to test the response plans and to address gaps and deficiencies.

9.         Fortunately for all of us, the next major epidemic after SARS, the influenza pandemic of 2009 was a relatively milder one. Nonetheless, it provided a good opportunity for us to further strengthen and fine-tune our pandemic preparedness and response plans. The Ministry of Health reviewed and updated our pandemic risk management framework together with other government agencies.

10.       Even now, we still face the threat of emerging infectious diseases such as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East (MERS) and Avian Influenza H7N9 in China. The Ministry continues to monitor the situation closely.

11.       The public can also play an important role in the national response to an epidemic or pandemic by observing good personal hygiene, obtaining the appropriate vaccinations and if unwell, exercise social responsibility by visiting the doctor and not going to work or school. 

Conclusion

12.       Today’s seminar reminds us that we must not forget the past and continue to learn from the valuable teachings by our predecessors such as Dr Wu.  His many accomplishments and selfless spirit serves as an inspiring role model for today’s public health leaders amidst the constantly evolving threat of emerging infectious diseases.

13.       Finally, I would like to congratulate the organizing committee in organising this meaningful seminar as well as the photo exhibition of Dr Wu’s work.

14.       It gives me great pleasure to be here today to see that the legacy of Dr Wu’s lives on. I wish each and every one of you an enjoyable and enriching experience as you learn more about the contribution and legacy of Dr Wu. Thank you.

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