Sat, Dec 20, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: SARS preventable with good policy

On July 5, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared Taiwan free of new SARS infections.

Terrifyingly, the world's first case of SARS this winter was reported in Taiwan on Wednesday. Although this has borne out health authorities' warnings that SARS might stage a comeback during the winter, the Taiwanese people were still shocked when the prediction suddenly came true.

Luckily, this SARS case -- just like the one that was reported in Singapore in September -- involved a medical institution, the Graduate Institute of Preventive Medicine at Taipei's National Defense Medical Center, and so far has not spread to the public.

Although it is urgent that the patient's whereabouts during the past two weeks be investigated, the WHO has already announced that it will not declare Taiwan an infected area. Taiwanese people should not panic nor overreact, but it is necessary for us to take stock of our preparedness for another outbreak.

First, the lack of medical equipment and resources at medical institutions should have been addressed by now.

Second, we must ask where the weak points are in the nation's SARS prevention program. The recent cases in Singapore and Taiwan show that medical laboratories, where the virus is examined and vaccines are researched, are in fact very dangerous but easily ignored. The Cabinet's Department of Health (DOH) conducted safety checks at domestic SARS-related research units in September. After the recent case occurred, the DOH suspended operations at these units so as to carry out an investigation. It is therefore believed that the situation will not get out of control.

Third, it is important that information about the epidemic can be easily understood and that transparency be maintained. The reason SARS went out of control during the outbreak during the first half of the year was that China, where the disease started, ignored and even deliberately concealed information about SARS. The major decline in the Taiwanese stock market following news of the new infection also highlighted the fact that incomplete information only makes matters worse. Yesterday's reaction from the authorities, in which they gave an independent, quick and substantive explanation, received a positive reaction from the WHO. There is good reason to believe that the DOH and hospitals will be able to provide transparent information about future handling of the disease, both to put the people of Taiwan at ease and to avoid international overreactions that might be harmful to Taiwan.

Fourth, it is important to make sure that Taiwan's public health work can be thoroughly carried out, and that better public health habits can be implemented. As soon as the first wave of SARS was brought under control, health authorities went through various steps to train public health personnel, spread public health awareness and improve public health facilities. We will now find out if that personnel will be able to shoulder new responsibilities and whether overall public health conditions have improved. Provided basic preparations are thorough, there will be no room for SARS to once again spin out of control.

Finally, the public's psychological preparedness is an issue. The stock market saw an irrational decline following news of the new infection, only to rebound the next day. This shows that we all believe in Taiwan and the government's preparedness.

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