Wed, May 21, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: An unconscionable failure of nerve

Once again Taiwan's bid to become an observer to the World Health Organization (WHO) has failed to make it onto the World Health Assembly's agenda -- despite the SARS epidemic here and Beijing's unconscionable cover-up of its own SARS problem. The message to the people of Taiwan is that whenever this nation is faced with a future epidemic, they shouldn't hold their breath waiting for help from the WHO.

How could a supposedly lofty organization such as the WHO continue to allow outdated political considerations to override the right of millions of people in this country to proper health care -- especially since such a move places the health of billions more around the world at risk? WHO members must make a conscientious choice based on professional medical knowledge, instead of blindly handing over the responsibility of caring for the people of Taiwan to Beijing's bloodied hands.

Political considerations aside, the decision was clearly mistaken from a health-care point of view. After all, the quality of medical services in China is far behind that of Taiwan -- something WHO officials know very well. So how could a medically more advanced region be "well in the care" of one with lower medical standards?

Epidemiologists worldwide agree that many epidemics affecting China and the rest of Asia originate from southern China, a region with a high population density, warm, humid weather and the close cohabitation of human beings and animals. Taiwanese species often have no resistance against the diseases coming from China, as shown by the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in March 1997 that decimated the domestic hog industry.

Now an epidemic that originated in Guangdong Province is killing people and wreaking havoc in Taiwan -- as it has in Hong Kong, Singapore, Toronto, Beijing and many other places.

The fact that Taiwan needs help from the WHO is beyond doubt. According to reports from Taiwanese medical experts, one of the major causes behind the recent hospital outbreaks of SARS is that the virus often hides under the cover of chronic diseases such as gall bladder inflammation, kidney problems and heart disease. Due to the lack of experience in treating SARS, many doctors have misdiagnosed patients.

The WHO extended its help to Singapore within days of the first reports of SARS there. It took more than six weeks for it to send a small team here. If the WHO had sent more personnel and sufficient help in the early phases of the outbreak to help with case detection, doctors might have detected hidden SARS cases sooner. Taiwan might not have had to learn the lesson at such a terrible price.

The hospital outbreaks at National Taiwan University and Mackay Memorial Hospital in Taipei, as well as Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Kaohsiung, were the result of misdiagnosis.

The WHO has rejected Taiwan for the seventh time, but that does not mean the people of this nation should give up. Perhaps the people should follow President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) advice and hold a referendum to persuade the international community that joining the WHO is the consensus of a majority of Taiwanese and that Beijing has no right whatsoever to dictate them in this matter.

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