Wed, May 07, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Two doctors from WHO keep quiet

MIXED MESSAGES The WHO's spokesman says they are here to assess the situation, but local experts say they are looking for `community transmissions'

By Debby Wu  /  STAFF REPORTER

Masked devotees burn incense at Lungshan Temple in Taipei yesterday. The popular temple, located in the SARS-hit district of Wanhua, has made all visitors wear masks before entering its compound.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Two experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) are here to investigate whether there have been "community transmissions" of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), said local experts who have been working with the two doctors.

"I am rather confident that the number of SARS cases reported by Taipei City Government is accurate, but they seem keen to know whether other cities and counties are reporting the SARS situation honestly," said King Chwan-chuen (金傳春), a professor at National Taiwan University's Department of Public Health, alluding to "community transmission."

While visiting the Taipei City Government yesterday to meet the city's health officials, Dr. Steve Martin and Dr. Cathy Roth, the two WHO specialists, declined to comment when approached by the Taipei Times.

"I am sorry. We had instructions. I don't mean to be rude," Martin said. Roth later made a similar dismissal, and apologized.

Commenting on Chin's account of the WHO officials' skepticism over Taiwan's SARS reporting, Chi Hsueh-yun (紀雪雲), spokeswoman for the Department of Health (DOH), said the government is completely open and transparent.

"We will arrange any inspection trip or visit and we are willing to offer any figure or information in response to their questions," Chi said.

"The experts were here to help and give us some guidance," said Director of Taipei City Bureau of Health Chiu Shu-ti (邱淑媞) after the meeting Martin and Roth yesterday.

Chin said the experts had proposed to visit the bureau on their own initiative. They also met with Taipei City Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Ma had thanked them for their help.

According to a Center for Disease Control official, who wished to remain anonymous, the two experts have been holding meetings everyday at the CDC, usually accompanied by Ho Mei-shang (何美鄉), a researcher from Academia Sinica who has been helping out in the battle against SARS.

Prior to their visit to Taipei City Hall, Martin and Roth went to National Taiwan University Hospital to exchange opinions with Superintendent Lee Yuan-te (李源得) and Dr Chang Shang-chun (張上淳).

WHO spokesman Jack Thompson in Geneva denied by phone that the pair were in Taiwan specifically to probe the matter of community transmission.

"The representatives are in Taiwan to see the conditions there, and offer technical guidance on things such as infection control," Thompson said.

Commenting on what "community transmission" may mean, NTU spokesperson Dr. Lin Ho-shing (林鶴雄) said, "to say that an area has the problem of SARS `community transmission,' there needs to be a case of mass contraction of the epidemic, just like what happened in Amoy Garden complex (淘大花園) in Hong Kong."

According to Thompson, the representatives have already briefed the WHO on their visit in Taiwan yesterday, but they did not report today due to their tight schedule.

"It is possible that there will be some preliminary assessment by the end of the week," Thompson said.

"The WHO will not discuss Taiwan's situation until a conclusion is made. But it is also possible that we cannot discuss it even after a conclusion is made," he said.

The Taipei City Government is on high alert and is taking precautions to avoid transmissions within the community in the Wanhua District, as another homeless person was reported as having SARS-like symptoms yesterday.

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