Sun, Dec 26, 2004 - Page 8 News List

WHO exclusion is a health threat

By DennisHickey

Like many other concepts and phrases employed in the field of international relations, national security is a term that means different things to different people. During the Cold War, it was roughly equivalent to the term "defense," and signified the protection of a nation's territory or people against a military attack. Today, however, it has a much more extensive meaning and implies the protection of a country's political interests, economic interests, environment and public health.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the global community may soon confront a health crisis of biblical proportions. Avian influenza, or bird flu, has become endemic in Asia. It appears to be only a matter of time before it makes the leap to humans, and thus, human-to-human transmission. Should the WHO's predictions prove to be correct and human-to-human transmission becomes commonplace, the consequences could be catastrophic.

On Nov. 25, Klaus Stohr, a WHO influenza expert, told reporters in Bangkok that the next flu pandemic is inevitable and that it will cause the deaths of between 2 million and 7 million people. Several days later, Shigeru Omi, regional director of the WHO's Western Pacific office, suggested that this estimate was conservative. He claimed that "we are talking at least 7 million deaths, but maybe more -- 10 million, 20 million and the worst case 100 million."

Omi added, "if it happens, it will be incomparable with the SARS situation."

On Dec. 20, however, the estimated death toll was revised downward to 7 million deaths.

Whether the anticipated pandemic results in 7 million or 100 million deaths is immaterial at this juncture. Rather, the critical task that confronts the WHO is to figure out how to head off this threat to global health. To its credit, the WHO is calling for greater international cooperation, the stockpiling of anti-viral drugs, vaccine development and other public health measures. The global institution has also appealed to "some countries" to prevent delays in disclosing information about outbreaks of the flu (Chinese officials had sought initially to downplay or cover up the extent of the SARS epidemic last year). But there is one more important step that should be taken.

As part of the strategy aimed at greater cooperation, the steering committee of the WHO's World Health Assembly should call an emergency meeting and accede to Taiwan's request to participate in the organization as a "health entity" with observer status. As one of the world's major trading nations, over four million foreigners will visit Taiwan this year. Should the anticipated pandemic occur, the nation may prove to be more than a hub for trade. It will also serve as a hub for the epidemic. Taiwan's proximity to China -- a nation widely recognized as the origin of numerous strains of influenza and other infectious diseases -- only serves to exacerbate the danger.

Taiwan's exclusion from the WHO represents a serious threat both to the health of the Taiwanese people and the entire global community. As the executive board of the WHO proclaimed in 2001, "the globalization of infectious diseases is such that an outbreak in one country is potentially a threat to the whole world."

A virus originating in southern China may spread to Taiwan and onward to Japan or America in less than 24 hours.

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