Mon, May 19, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Diseases need central control, not bickering

By Liao I-ming 廖義銘

Some local governments have once again refused to follow the central government's prevention measures to stop severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). I'm afraid that the responsibility for the ruptured anti-SARS network may trigger another "war of words" among political parties or between the central and local governments.

The purpose of clarifying this matter is not to levy responsibility on those government decision-making bodies. Instead, even when dealing with the best of people, only when the authority-responsibility relationship is clear can such problems be solved efficiently.

The main characteristics of a major contagion, and the reason behind its becoming a significant and emergent national crisis, lies in its rapid and boundless spread.

Therefore, the central governments in the world's advanced countries are fully responsible for making administrative decisions and issuing orders from both the systematic aspect, which involves the Constitution and laws, and that of substance, which involves operational issues.

The spread of "mad cow disease" (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE) in the UK serves as a perfect example. In 1986, British veterinarians detected the disease when dissecting some infected cows.

However, both the central and local governments were not aware of the seriousness of the disease, taking it as a minor veterinary discovery.

As the infected area expanded, the situation became worse in 1988 when farmers continued to sell those ill cows and thereby hastened the outbreak of the disease.

The situation eventually spun out of control.

The British government was not determined to eliminate the disease until 1996. About 11 million ill cows were destroyed in the next six years. Meanwhile, the government publicly apologized to the world and was forced to ban the export of meat products.

Thus, at the massive cost of tens of billions of pounds, it obtained an overall disease prevention experience that was extremely valuable to every nation in the world.

In the face of the crisis, not only did the central government of Britain not take the chance to attack local governments in order to gain political recognition, it actually took all political and administrative responsibilities upon itself.

Because it understood that inappropriate disease prevention would damage both the nation's overall interests and the public -- not just a party or a city.

Similarly, when the US was hit by the Sept. 11 incident and the anthrax attacks afterward, the federal government also stood up and guided the public to respond to the attacks.

We should actively learn from such mature experiences in an effort to better Taiwan's disease warning system, as well as its epidemic control team, building an all-round, multidimensional and multilevel system for epidemic crisis management.

Recently, the former director of Taipei City's Bureau of Health Yeh Chin-chuan (葉金川) -- who voluntarily entered Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital to handle the SARS outbreak -- said that "the situation is pessimistic if the central government still refuses to bear the full responsibility, and still can't come up with concrete and effective policy on SARS prevention, especially against possible local infections."

This is indeed the most urgent task of the nation's SARS prevention in this phase.

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