Fri, May 07, 2004 - Page 8 News List

WHO is sick

By Danielle Hagmann

How did China treat SARS and the WHO ("Poisoned words provoke changes," May 3, Page 8)? The World Health Organization (WHO) is the only world health authority responsible for promoting the highest standard of health for all people everywhere. Since the infection of political interference continually threatens the work of the organization, the role of its head should be to continually strengthen its immune system and defend its independence. Unfortunately, Director-General Lee Jong-wook seems to have abdicated that responsibility.

Lee recently visited Beijing for his first trip to the world's most populous country. He should have been able to work to secure improved transparency and cooperation from the Chinese health authorities, who fooled the global health community by covering up the SARS outbreaks last year, causing enormous loss of life and a huge financial impact throughout the Asia-Pacific region. However, not only did he fail to do so, he also failed even to obtain a clear list of laboratories in China stocking SARS viruses. Two days after Lee finished his kowtow, China's health authorities notified the WHO Beijing office of two cases of SARS, the first since January. These quickly expanded into 10 cases, at least one death in Anhui Province, and thousands of contacts with index cases in the region. These SARS cases originated from a mismanaged laboratory across town where Lee was feted by Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Chinese Vice Health Minister Gao Qiang (高強), and expressed his fealty to China's mission to prevent Taiwan from participation, even as an observer, in the WHO. The only message Lee carried in his trip was "there is no room for Taiwan to get into WHO as an observer or a member."

Of course, this political statement earned him warm smiles from the Chinese government. In fact, the new batch of SARS emanating from China's Center of Disease Control were already spreading from the capital to Anhui province before and while Lee was there. What we do not know is, did Beijing deliberately cover up the outbreak until after Lee had delivered his political commitments, then released the health threat news on its planned schedule? It is time for the WHO and Lee to diagnose this health question.

Danielle Hagmann

Center for Global Health Analysis

Geneva, Switzerland

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