Department of Health Minister Yaung Chih-liang (楊志良) yesterday pledged to step down if any outbreaks of the NDM-1 superbug take place in the nation.
“If outbreaks are found, [the public] can fire me. I will be very glad [to step down as a result],” Yaung said during a question-and-answer session with Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Huang Jen-shu (黃仁杼) on the legislative floor.
The minister made the remarks after the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) came under fire for its decision on Monday to discharge a patient with the nation’s first case of the NDM-1 superbug from the hospital. The CDC said that although the man — a cameraman for cable TV news station TVBS who contracted the disease while being treated in an Indian hospital after being shot during a visit to New Delhi last month — carries the bacteria, he shows no symptoms of the disease and therefore he does not need to be quarantined.
The decision drew criticism from former CDC director-general Su Ih-jen (蘇益仁), who expressed concern that the bacteria’s drug-resistant gene could replicate in indigenous bacteria and described the CDC’s decision as “risky” and “reckless.”
Yaung said yesterday that the CDC reached the decision after deliberation among public health experts.
“We don’t enjoy the authority to limit his freedom by law, but we will conduct weekly follow-ups of his health condition,” Yaung said.
Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) said he would urge Yaung to consider placing the patient in a hospital or a specific location “before he is fully cured,” adding that “this way the public will feel more relieved.”
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Tsai Chin-lung (蔡錦隆) suggested that the Department of Health implement health screening measures, similar to those conducted during the SARS epidemic, at airports for travelers from areas where cases of the bacteria have been found.
Yaung rejected the call, however, saying that activating a similar level of measures for NDM-1 would only cause unnecessary public fear.
“NDM-1 is not transmitted through spatters in the air or physical contact,” Yaung said. “The bacteria is unstoppable unless Taiwan shuts its door and suspends all economic activities with other nations, but we can’t do that,” he said.
CDC Deputy Director-General Shih Wen-yi (施文儀) yesterday also reiterated that the man would not cause an infection outbreak in his neighborhood because the nation’s sewage system is good enough to prevent the bacteria from contaminating the environment.
“As long as he keeps to good hygiene, such as washing his hands after using the restroom, he should remain healthy and those around him will not have to worry about being infected,” Shih said. “Even if he neglects to wash his hands thoroughly and carries the bacteria on his hands, chances are the bacteria will die before it could spread to other individuals.”
Endorsing the CDC’s decision, Huang Li-min (黃立民), director of National Taiwan University Hospital’s pediatric infectious diseases division, who had predicted weeks ago that the superbug would eventually find its way into Taiwan, said that the patient is better off at home than staying in the hospital, where there are many patients fighting existing illnesses that cause them to have weaker immune systems.
On the other hand, the drug--resistant NDM-1 would be at a disadvantage when fighting other bacteria that exist outside of the hospital, he added.
Meanwhile, Yaung said the health department has decided to fine the Chinese-language Apple Daily for running a picture of the man carrying the superbug in yesterday’s paper.
The paper was not allowed to print his picture in the newspaper although his identity is known, Yaung said.
“Maybe Apple Daily has more money than the others, so we will fine them,” he said.
However, at a separate setting yesterday National Communications Commission (NCC) Content Department Director Jason Ho (何吉森) said the CDC had indirectly disclosed the patient’s name in the first place.
“We did not understand why the press release issued by CDC had to mention that the patient was the photographer who recently suffered a gunshot in India,” Ho said. “I am afraid it [CDC] has to review the way it made the announcement first.”
Regarding the CDC’s request to investigate if the media coverage of the patient may have invaded his privacy, Ho said the amended Computer-Processed Personal Data Protection Act (個人資料保護法) has yet to take effect.
“The Satellite Television Broadcasting Association had checked with the TVBS, which said the photographer has authorized the TVBS spokesperson to talk to the press about him,” Ho said. “In that case, the interviews were executed with the photographer’s consent. The Personal Data Protection Act will not apply if the person agrees to the interview.”
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