Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Days When Singapore Panicked - Part 2

Outbreak of Barley Poisoning

The Queenstown constituency where many deaths occurred had Dr. Lee Siew Choh as their Member of Parliament from the PAP party. Dr. Lee was also the Political Secretary of the Ministry of Health which my Department reported to. Naturally he and everybody else wanted to know who was really responsible and how to get compensation for the deaths of the eight children and the illness caused to the other people. I was again given the task of finding the answer with the Ministry’s backing.

Could the Parathion come from (i) spaying in the field or (ii) could it be a contamination from the ship’s hold on way to Singapore or (iii) contamination from the local shops. We examined several bags of barley and found that only those with a certain marking were found to be contaminated with the poison. Some were very badly soaked. Barley with different markings or from cans were not affected. Further investigation showed that this consignment came from a European cargo boat. With the cooperation of the local European Embassy we were informed that the particular cargo boat would be going to Miri, Sarawak, for fuel on a Saturday. I flew to Miri with the First Secretary of the European Embassy and waited for 10 days for the boat that never came. I was supposed to question the captain and examine the boat’s log books. Could the ship’s captain or owner have been tipped off ? This, we would never know.

When the boat did not turn up after five days I wanted to come home. My ministry did not allow this and I had to stay on until my personal funds were exhausted. That was 10 days in the one horse town of Miri. We showed that we did everything possible to find the ones responsible. The boat never turned up in Miri.

What were my feelings towards this case? I was happy that I rose to the occasion and had isolated and identified the poison so quickly. More important I confirmed that the killer was in the barley and it was the deadly insecticide Parathione which was prohibited for use in Singapore. My only regret was that we did not succeed in finding who was really responsible. At least we could then get some compensation for the bereaved families. Our consolation was that we did everything possible under the circumstances.

No doubt I am very proud of the way this case was handled. The tension was very great and I am glad I survived it all. It showed that with some common sense and a little courage to do something different, or even absurd, can help a lot. I must have smelled a lot of the fumes from the extracts and felt very dazed for a few days that followed. But I am satisfied I rose to the occasion. I learned how uneasy it was for the head that wore the crown. Yet someone has to wear it.

I am grateful my medical colleagues provided the help I needed. Under these circumstances I was able to do more than my normal duty. That was the satisfaction I had from this case. This taught me the need for good networking and that multidisciplinary approach is important to solving life’s problems. Any undue delay on my part would have caused many dearly. We had not only pinpointed the barley as the culprit but also identified the ‘Killer” insecticide. We managed to calm a panic stricken public in time and saved many traders thousands of dollars and possibly many lives. I had done my best and my only regret was that I could not help in finding the captain of the European cargo boat guilty of negligence. Otherwise at least the families of the deceased children would have got some form of compensation. I could not have solved this case without the help of so many people, particularly the police and my medical colleagues and my staff. These people are some of our unsung heroes and we have many of them to thank for solving this case so fast.

Recently we have SARS and bird flu for the past few years. We have yet to find a solution to solve these problems. This showed how serious some incidents can be. Luckily we managed to solve our “Barley Poisoning” outbreak in record time for which we are proud. The incident taught me that we must do everything possible to nip the problem in the bud. A lot depended on ourselves and our attitude towards the work to be done. We must be confident and not be afraid to try to do what we think is right. If we were not pro active and positive we might cause some very serious consequences to ourselves and to others in the process especially when one is professionally in charge of the project. I learned many lessons from this case which affected my life and the lives of many others, especially those who are doing research and have something to do with solving problems. I will share some of these lessons I learned in Part Three of this series and discussed how I did what I did.

Lee Kum Tatt

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