Mon, May 19, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Time to lift Taiwan's quarantine

By Eugene Chien 簡又新

Today the annual World Health Assembly (WHA) convenes in Geneva. Among many crucial topics in global health, the WHA will have before it a proposal to consider inviting Taiwan to be an observer at the World Health Organization (WHO), which has been tabled repeatedly in recent years. As Taiwan, along with much of Asia, is battling the SARS epidemic, this proposal is more timely than ever.

We are very grateful that, over the years, international public opinion has gradually come to appreciate the medical necessity of our modest request. Many leading international medical associations and an increasing number of parliaments, most notably the European Parliament and the US Congress, have passed resolutions calling for Taiwan's participation, and governments of the US, Japan, and many other countries have become active in support of our cause.

At the same time, we are also grateful for the practical assistance provided and offered by the US, Japan and others in our fight to contain SARS, and for the understanding and cooperation shown by the hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals who live, work and do business in Taiwan.

The intense integration of Taiwan into the global economy has always been a source of strength and pride for us. However, it also increases the risks -- both to us and to the countries we trade with, invest in and travel to -- of the spread of newly emerging diseases.

In 1998, we suffered an outbreak of enterovirus that took the lives of 78 children which was cause for alarm for non-Taiwanese families with children. Now SARS has killed over 34 people, and it is not yet fully under control. We have been forced to impose travel restrictions on visitors from other affected areas, even as our nationals are subject to some travel restrictions abroad, to the great detriment of the prosperity of all.

In today's globalized world, it is only reasonable to assume that such outbreaks will continue to occur from time to time, and we must redouble our efforts to deal with them.

Given that diseases know no boundaries, such preparations can only be effective if they are collective, involving all countries. Unfortunately, due to non-health considerations, Taiwan has not been able to participate in the substantive programs of information sharing and coordination under the auspices of the WHO. This has left a gap in the global network of disease prevention, putting at risk our own citizens, as well as those of our neighbors and trading partners.

In both the enterovirus and SARS cases, our health authorities requested technical assistance from the WHO. In the former situation, we received no such assistance. With SARS, our calls went unanswered during the crucial first few weeks, when we had a window of opportunity to contain the outbreak. Only after our situation deteriorated dramatically late last month did the WHO send its first experts to our country.

The contrast with the response of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USCDC) is especially noteworthy: they responded to our appeal immediately, with a substantial team of experts that provided invaluable assistance. The difference is that we have an established channel of direct communication with the USCDC, because they have been able to put aside political issues and act purely out of professional health considerations. This is what we are asking the WHO to do as well.

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