Tue, May 13, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Investigate the Hoping mess

A second nurse from Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital died from SARS on Sunday, just one day before International Nurses Day. When the hospital was sealed off on April 24, scenes of bottle-throwing protests by some doctors and nurses at the hospital were beamed by TV channels nationwide and abroad. But the outside world had no way of knowing what was actually going on inside the hospital. Now that the quarantine has ended, people have begun to learn why the staff protested so vehemently -- they were unwilling to become victims of human negligence.

Staff members have accused the hospital authorities of hiding SARS cases. President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) also criticized the hospital yesterday. Two days before the hospital was shut down, he had asked its administrators if they had any SARS cases, but the answer he got was, according to Chen, "No problem."

Fingers are pointing at Wu Kang-wen (吳康文), the hospital's superintendent, and Lin Rong-ti (林榮第), director of its infectious disease department. They stand accused of not telling the doctors and nurses about SARS patients in the hospital, failing to adopt quarantine measures and not recording or notifying other hospitals that suspected SARS patients were being transferred from Hoping, thereby leading to mass infections both at Hoping and Jen Chi Hospital.

Taipei's Wanhua District is now enveloped in the gloom of SARS and Taiwan has been designated by the World Health Organization as a seriously affected area. Negligence and incompetence at Hoping Hospital have incurred massive social, health and economic losses for the entire nation.

Wu was sacked yesterday and a new management team has taken over the hospital in order to turn it into a center dedicated to treating SARS patients. But the responsibility for what happened at Hoping has yet to be clarified.

There must be a thorough investigation into the hospital's administration and procedures. The investigators should look for the routes of infection within the hospital, any possible cover-up and dereliction on the part of the hospital's staff and authorities, and possible mishandling of the quarantine. The government must also launch an all-out investigation to pursue medical, administrative and criminal responsibility for what happened at the hospital, to dispense justice on behalf of those medical workers and patients whose lives were sacrificed.

It was a mistake for the Taipei City Government to prevaricate over such a probe. A blame game in the middle of the SARS crisis may been seen as inappropriate, given the potential for hurting morale just at the time it is most needed. But learning what went wrong at Hoping and how the virus spread will help doctors and scientists fighting the disease in this country and elsewhere. Such an investigation will also help officials devise new protocols for dealing with infectious diseases and other medical emergencies.

In the fight against SARS, mistakes caused by ignorance can be forgiven because so little is known about the virus. Missed diagnoses are very easy when the guidelines are not clear or doctors don't know what to look for, as health experts admit happened in Toronto, Singapore and other places hard hit by the virus. But if someone clearly knows a patient has SARS and yet conceals the information -- for whatever reason -- then such mistakes must not be forgiven or forgotten.

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