Friday, April 03, 2009

SPH vs. Al-Amin Education Centre (A defamation case over an HFMD article)

Personally I don't find it a defamation about SPH reporting about HFMD case in one of their articles & featured Al-Amin Education Centre as the suspected place. Sheesh. We never heard about Cutie Kidz Playhouse, Tumbelina Educare Centre and Sweetlands Childcare and Development Centre suing the Ministry of Health for their press release about HFMD, didn't we?!

Some contradicting news mentioned about whether Al-Amin Education Center notified parents about the HFMD case. In the Straits Times article, the managing director "conceded when quizzed by SPH's lawyer Andrew Yeo, that between mid-April and late-May, the centre reported at least 20 new cases to the Health Ministry but did not notify parents in writing."

However in the other article from Channel NewsAsia, it's stated that "...Al-Amin Education had sent a letter dated April 1 to parents informing them of three HFMD cases in the centre, following a Ministry of Education (MOE) advisory to pre-schools about stepping up hygiene standards to prevent HFMD."

So was the letter sent or not sent? That may be the question which answer will determine the outcome of the trial.

On a separate note, I disagree Al-Amin Education Center thinking that a notice board will suffice. How many of us ever stops to read any memo/circular in a notice board?!

A two-day defamation trial in the High Court brought by a Tampines kindergarten against Singapore Press Holdings ended on Thursday.

The case has been adjourned for three weeks for lawyers on both sides to submit closing arguments. Justice Lee Seiu Kin said after the submissions, he will give his decision 'in due course'.

The case is centred on a May 23, 2008 report in The Straits Times on a 13-month-old baby boy who fell seriously ill from hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD).

In the article, written by vetern health journalist Salma Khalik, the infant's mother said she suspected her son caught the bug from his older cousin, who goes to Al-Amin Education Centre.

Madam Jamaiedah Mustafa was also upset that parents were not notified that HFMD was going around.

Al-Amin sued SPH over the article, alleging that the article was defamatory as it suggested that the centre was negligent in its management of HFMD cases and was to blame for the infant's condition.

In its defence, SPH says the article did not defame the kindergarten.

Even if it had, the newspaper publisher said it was justified as the centre had not sent updates to parents on the number of HFMD cases. SPH is also relying on the defence of qualified privilege; it had a duty to convey information on the HFMD situation, which is an issue of public health.

The hearing into the case began on Wednesday. Al-Amin called two witnesses for its defense. Its managing director, Mr Syed Alwi Syed Ibrahim Altahir, alleged that the article was a tactic to boost circulation by naming the kindergarten and 'creating drama that we tried to avoid the press'. He claimed that parents were not kept in the dark about the HFMD situation.

However, he conceded when quizzed by SPH's lawyer Andrew Yeo, that between mid-April and late-May, the centre reported at least 20 new cases to the Health Ministry but did not notify parents in writing.

From Straits Times, "SPH Defamation Suit: Case adjourned for 3 weeks".

A childcare centre is suing newspaper company Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) for alleged defamation.

Al-Amin Education is claiming that a Straits Times article last year had implied its Tampines branch was responsible for a 13-month-old boy and his five-year-old cousin contracting hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD).

The plaintiff further claims that the article last May had alleged it was negligent in maintaining hygiene standards to control the disease and did not take any reasonable steps to update parents about the HFMD situation in the centre.

SPH is disputing the claim. Its lawyer Andrew Yeo from Allen & Gledhill said Wednesday in his opening statement that the words used in the article were not defamatory in nature. He added that the May 23 article was published on an occasion of qualified privilege, as it had conveyed information on an issue of public health and there was public interest.

Taking the stand first in a hearing scheduled for two days was Al-Amin Education director Syed Alwi Al-Tahir, who said the centre has two channels to inform parents of its HMFD situation: through its notice board and circulars.

Mr Syed Alwi said teachers would place circulars in the children’s communication books, which parents are supposed to check for any information from the centre.

The court heard that Al-Amin Education had sent a letter dated April 1 to parents informing them of three HFMD cases in the centre, following a Ministry of Education (MOE) advisory to pre-schools about stepping up hygiene standards to prevent HFMD.

Al-Amin Education, which also runs a centre at Pasir Ris, subsequently updated MOE and the Ministry of Health of fresh cases in April and May.

But since no written notice was given to parents about these cases, SPH will also rely on the defence of justification, said Mr Yeo.

Mr Syed Alwi stressed that the centre closed voluntarily from April 8 to 10, which parents would have known. “It’s a partnership (with parents). You can’t put the whole burden on the school,” he said.

The reporter who wrote the article, Salma Khalik, also testified on Wednesday. She said her article “blames nobody” and that it was “just a factual representation on what happened”. The article was “triggered” by a press release sent a day earlier by MOH on updates of the HFMD situation in Singapore, she said.

Al-Amin Education took issue, however, with how the article mentioned that the centre could not be contacted for comment, suggesting that it “tried to avoid the press intentionally”, according to its lawyer Anthony Netto from Bernard & Rada Law Corporation.

When the lawyer asked Ms Salma why the article was published even though she could not contact the plaintiff, she said it would be “very irresponsible of us not to publish the information the next day because children’s lives were at stake”.

The hearing continues on Thursday.

From Channel NewsAsia, "Childcare centre Al-Amin takes issue with ST report".


Investigations into the death of the two-year old at the Cutie Kidz Playhouse, is still ongoing. Tissue samples are being analyzed to identify the species of virus responsible. From clinical symptoms, there is suspicion that the boy might have been infected with hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD).

HFMD is a common contagious childhood disease, which occurs all over the world. It is usually mild and self-limiting. It may spread in an environment where children gather. HFMD can be spread through direct contact with nasal discharge, saliva, faeces, and fluid from the rash of an infected person. It can also spread indirectly through contact with play equipment, bedlinen and other articles used by an infected individual.

On very rare occasions HFMD can cause complications affecting the brain and the heart. And in very severe cases, may also cause death. So far, in Singapore there has not been any reported confirmed case of HFMD related death.

HFMD will become a legally notifiable disease under the Infectious Diseases Act, with effect from 1 October 2000. This will establish a baseline level on the incidence of this disease in Singapore which will help in the epidemiological surveillance and control of this disease.

In the last few years, the number of HFMD reported voluntarily by medical practitioners, members of the public and childcare centres, have increased from 26 per week in 1998 to 27 per week in 1999 and 58 per week in 2000 (up to mid- Sep). We believe that the increase could be due to a greater awareness among childcare centre managers since MCDS held a seminar for all childcare centres in Singapore early this year.

To date, there are 9 clinically diagnosed cases, all from the Cutie Kidz Playhouse. We have also been notified of 24 suspected HFMD cases in two other childcare centres. The centres are Tumbelina Educare Centre and Sweetlands Childcare and Development Centre.

The Ministry of the Environment (ENV) and Ministry of Health (MOH) officials are now working with the Ministry of Community Development and Sports (MCDS) to confirm the suspected cases.

Meanwhile, Cutie Kidz Playhouse will remain closed for at least 10 days and the place cleaned and sterilized. This is to cover the virus' incubation period of 3-5 days and ensure that no viruses linger beyond the incubation period.

From Ministry of Health 13/09/2000 press release, "Hand, Foot And Mouth Disease At Cutie Kidz Playhouse".

More about Hand, Foot & Mouth Disease--quoted from Ministry of Health website:
Disease Characteristics
Hand, Foot & Mouth Disease (HFMD) is an illness caused by intestinal viruses, commonest being Coxsackie virus and Enterovirus 71. A person with HFMD usually presents with the following symptoms:

* Fever for 2-3 days Sore throat and runny nose
* Rash (flat or raised red spots, some with blisters) on palms of hands, soles of feet, or buttocks
* Mouth ulcers
* Poor appetite
* Vomiting and diarrhoea
* Tiredness and weakness ("feeling sick")

HFMD is usually mild and self-limiting. No specific treatment is available, however, treatment can be given to relieve the symptoms of the disease.

Parents are advised to consult a doctor early if their child has symptoms of HFMD.

They should also be alert to any change in their child's normal behaviour, eg irritation and sleepiness. Should they refuse to eat or drink, have persistent vomiting or drowsiness, parents should bring their child immediately to the A&E Departments of either NUH or KKH, whichever is closer to their home.

HFMD is endemic in Singapore. It became legally notifiable on 1 October 2000. The public may refer to the MOH Weekly Infectious Diseases Bulletin for the current situation of HFMD.

Children should be kept away from crowded public places (schools, preschools, play groups, markets, public transport etc.) if they show signs of infection. Family members are advised to follow good hygiene practices, including frequent hand washing, to limit the spread of the infection. Download HPB's educational clip here.

Transmission of enterovirus infections is increased by poor hygiene and overcrowded living conditions.

The Ministry of Health has alerted all hospitals and doctors in Singapore to look out for cases of this infection. These cases are to be notified to the Ministry of the Environment for epidemiological investigations.

Guidelines for proper specimen collection in suspected cases for virus isolation has also been issued to all hospitals and paediatricians.

Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Community Development and Sports have stepped up inspections on the health and hygiene standards of all childcare centres, nurseries and kindergartens.

Check out also Ministry of Health, "MOH weekly publication of statistics on local infectious disease situation".

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