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Singapore Health Minister finally speaks out about HIV data breach

Singapore Health Minister finally speaks out about HIV data breach

Singapore couple

Singapore’s Minister for Health has told parliament the leak of personal data of more than 14,000 people living with HIV was a ‘regrettable incident’.

Gan Kim Yong addressed parliament on Tuesday (12 February) after the public learned of the massive data leak in late January.

An American citizen, Mikhy K Farrera Brochez, had obtained the data through his former partner Ler Teck Siang. Dr Siang was the former head of the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) National Public Health Unit.

Despite having possession of the data for almost two years, Brochez published it online in January. The data include all the personal and medical information of 5,400 Singaporeans and 8,800 foreigners living with HIV up until 2013. The leaked data also included the information of those patients’ emergency contacts.

‘The incident has caused anxiety and distress to the affected persons. This matter is especially delicate as it involves persons living with HIV. Our priority is their wellbeing,’ Gan told the parliament.

In his address Gan said the MOH had managed to contact 2,400 of the people affected by the data breach. He said many of the patients and the medical staff who had to contact them felt distressed at the news.

‘Some may decline to return to care because of the fear of future disclosure. Some felt we should have just informed the affected individuals,’ he said.

‘The anxiety and concerns which some individuals felt have also been carried in various online, broadcast and print articles in recent weeks.’

Ending HIV stigma

Gan also acknowledged the ongoing stigma against people living HIV (PLHIV).

‘Several members have called for de-stigmatization of HIV, and asked how we can protect people living with HIV from discrimination. Stigmatisation is an issue that all of us are concerned with,’ he said.

‘De-stigmatization requires efforts across our society. Let me cite some of the efforts by MOH, together with the government and non-government agencies, advocacy groups and voluntary welfare organizations.’

But local HIV advocacy and support group Action For AIDS (AFA) Singapore said it would take a lot more than words to end HIV stigma.

‘Verbal calls to destigmatize HIV infection and PLHIV must be followed-up with real action,’ said AFA Singapore in a statement.

‘Measures need to be put in place to protect PLHIV, to progress from mere guidelines to actual laws with teeth and to ensure that they have access to affordable medical care, education, jobs, health and life insurance.

‘All these are needed for every person to lead full, productive and rewarding lives. We must review our laws and policies that perpetuate HIV stigma and discrimination.’

Data protection

Singapore has faced several medical record hacks and data leaks recently.

Gan said as a result the MOH set up a Data Analytics Group in April 2018.

‘Within the group, a Data Governance Division was set up to formulate policies, practices and guidelines for MOH and its agencies,’ he said.

‘The aim is to protect and secure access to health sector data, in accordance with data protection requirements in the Government Instruction Manuals and PDPA, and other MOH sectoral legislation.’

He said in light of the recent incident, MOH would expand the role and resourcing of this unit.

If you are affected and need support, please contact Oogachaga on their anonymous, confidential hotline.

The MOH has also set up a hotline for people who have information or concerns. The number is: +65 6325 9220.