Wed, Mar 15, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Grant Taiwan WHO observer status

Last week, the World Health Organization's (WHO) official Web site, which includes Taiwan as part of China, mistakenly showed Taiwan as being affected by bird flu. After protests from Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and members of the US Congress, the WHO on Monday distinguished between Taiwan and China, and excluded Taiwan from the infected area on its map.

That the WHO corrected the mistake immediately, pushing aside political considerations, testifies to the organization's professional attitude, and deserves praise. But the incident is yet another warning to Taiwan and the international community. To avoid similar incidents in the future, Taiwan should work to gain the right to attend the World Health Assembly (WHA) in May. The WHO should stop procrastinating and allow Taiwan observer status.

If the WHO had not made the prompt corrections, Taiwan would have been listed as a bird flu-infected area, dealing a serious blow to the tourism, trade and animal foods industries -- despite the fact that not one instance of bird flu has been discovered here. It would also have damaged Taiwan's international image and intensified pressure on the nation's health authorities and the psychological pressure on the general public. This highlights the difference in interests between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Although China claims that Taiwan is part of its territory, border restrictions between the countries remain in place, and the exchange of people, air traffic and goods between the two sides is more strictly controlled than between other countries. The disease prevention measures on each side of the Taiwan Strait are separate, and there are also clear differences in the quality of these measures. Political issues should not be confused with public health issues.

With the whole world under the threat of bird flu, excluding Taiwan from the international network to prevent the spread of infectious diseases may well make it the weak link in the disease prevention chain. This violates the Taiwanese people's fundamental right to medical information. It also weakens the international health network. With Taiwan located so close to China, an area affected by bird flu, the WHO should bolster disease prevention measures by allowing Taiwan to participate in technical discussions. This would prevent a repeat of the SARS crisis, during which Taiwan stood alone.

The WHO's international contagious disease report and response mechanism still excludes Taiwan. Although we can obtain the information via a third party such as the US, direct access to such information from the WHO would be more efficient and reduce the time lag, helping Taiwan to fulfill its responsibility to put in place preventive measures.

Last year, Taiwan strongly supported the addition of the words "universal application" to the International Health Regulations. Last year China also signed a memorandum of understanding with the WHO agreeing to the principle that preventive measures against epidemics have no national boundaries. It also agreed to Taiwan's participation in an avian flu conference in Tokyo. Nevertheless, it barred Taiwan from a similar conference held in Beijing. A country that shows such enmity to Taiwan should not be allowed to become its guardian.

The WHO's basic function is to guarantee global health, and it should operate on the basis of professionalism and international cooperation. Its considerations should exclude political questions such as national sovereignty and focus on health matters. It should therefore grant Taiwan observer status.

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