Tue, May 16, 2006 - Page 1 News List

WHO book lashes China over SARS

OUTBREAK FALLOUT The book also lavishes praise on Singapore and Vietnam, and describes how the virus blindsided Hong Kong and later spread in Taiwan


A new book published by the WHO praises Singapore and Vietnam for swiftly tackling the SARS crisis in 2003, but slams China for threatening the rest of the world by withholding information and denying the disease outbreak in the critical early months.

SARS: How a Global Epidemic was Stopped, also describes how the virus blindsided Hong Kong hospitals. It recounts how Taiwan got off to a good start battling the illness but eventually lost control of SARS.

The book's most pointed criticism is aimed at China. It uses frank language that many WHO officials avoided uttering in public while fighting the outbreak. They often said they feared the Chinese would get offended and stop cooperating with the UN health agency.

The 307-page book, to be released on Thursday in Hong Kong, said China allowed SARS to spread unreported for three months, from November 2002, before acknowledging its existence.

News of an outbreak reached the WHO's regional office in Manila, Philippines, on Feb. 10, 2003. The cases were reported in China's Guangdong Province -- which many experts believed to be the source of SARS.

By early March 2003, an outbreak of the illness was rapidly evolving in Hanoi, Vietnam, and the WHO realized it would need more help, the book said.

The WHO began pressing China for information about its outbreak, said WHO regional director Shigeru Omi in the book's overview.

"On 22 March 2003, I held a frank one-on-one meeting in a hotel in Hong Kong with the minister of health of the People's Republic of China," he said. "I asked for much more information and better cooperation concerning developments in Guangdong Province in the south of the country. We didn't get what we needed straight away."

World health implications

* The new WHO book faults China for failing to provide information the agency requested.

* It says China failed to issue a warning as the virus spread within the country and outside its borders.

* Singapore was described as a `model' in its response.

* Vietnam was also praised for taking action quickly.

* The book fails to mention Taiwan's request for WHO help, which was blocked by China.

The WHO also approached China several times with phone calls, letters and face-to-face encounters, "including the tense meeting in Hong Kong," the book said.

"China failed to issue a warning as the virus spread across the country and outside its borders," it said.

The book also said Beijing hospitals "were clearly withholding data, and some that were known to have SARS cases among their staff denied having a problem."

The Chinese leadership finally got serious about SARS by April 20, 2003, the book said, and the entire nation was mobilized to fight it. Former health minister Zhang Wenkang (張文康), who met with Omi in Hong Kong, was removed from his post.

SARS taught China that a rapid response was needed to fight such a disease, the book said.

"It showed how one nation's weak response could endanger the world's public-health security," it said.

In many ways, Singapore served as a model for cracking down on SARS, the book says. The nation quickly identified infections, traced cases, discouraged travel to places with SARS and enforced quarantines, it said.

The book also lavished praise on Vietnam for cooperating with the WHO in the early stages of the outbreak.

But the book said one of the mysteries of SARS was its abrupt stop of outbreaks in Vietnam after such an explosive start.

Taiwan appeared to be controlling SARS well but it spiraled out of control in late April 2003. Patients were being diagnosed quickly and isolated properly in hospitals, the book said.

But the book doesn't mention a major controversy in Taiwan that involved the WHO. The Taiwanese requested WHO help early in the outbreak, but China blocked the request, saying Taiwan wasn't a UN member.

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