Wed, May 07, 2003 - Page 3 News List

WHO urged to plug global health gap

AGENCIES , TAIPEI

Taiwan said its exclusion from the World Health Organization (WHO) is a gaping hole in the global campaign to combat severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and urged China to stop blocking its bid for membership.

Denying earlier Chinese criticism that Taiwan was politicizing the outbreak of SARS, Vice Minister of Foreign of Affairs Michael Kau (高英茂) in turn blasted Beijing for putting politics before humanitarian concerns.

"If China wants to show its sincerity, it should support our bid to become a WHO observer," Kau said.

"The WHO has begun to realize the hole in Taiwan is a very serious problem. It is important to have Taiwan's 23 million people under the WHO umbrella," he said late on Monday.

Kau said Taipei was not using the SARS outbreak to score political mileage, adding a visit by two WHO doctors this week -- the first time the agency has been to Taiwan in 30 years -- showed the virus posed a serious threat.

Although WHO membership would be a major coup in Taiwan's long-term bid for international recognition, the government has been careful -- at least publicly -- stress that it was only seeking medical support from the UN body.

Kau said the government hopes the WHO will allow it to be an observer at the agency's annual general meeting in Geneva on May 19 and called for Beijing's backing.

"We are not seeking to join as the Republic of China, as a sovereign state. We are not even seeking full WHO membership," said Kau, who leads the government's drive to join the WHO.

"What we want is participation in the health body. We only want an observership," he said.

"We want to join the WHO for health reasons but China is blocking us for political reasons," Kau said.

Underlying the political sensitivities, officials have said little about the WHO officials' visit from May 3 to 16, saying only that the two doctors would examine medical centers and offer suggestions on how to control the SARS outbreak.

The government insists the WHO did not need Beijing's approval to visit Taipei, while China said last week it had given the health body permission to visit Taiwan.

So far, the WHO epidemiologists have avoided the media and the government has kept their schedule secret .

Taiwan is eager to show the WHO that it would be a responsible member and should be granted at least an observer's seat in the organization.

Still, Twu Shing-jer (涂醒哲), head of the Department of Health, said yesterday that the WHO visit showed that the health agency made a mistake by not responding earlier to the government's request for help.

Twu said the WHO doctors' schedule will not be made public, but that they have visited several hospitals and advised on ways to contain the illness.

Peter Cordingley, spokesman for the WHO regional office in Manila, said the health agency did not need Beijing's permission to send experts to Taiwan. But he said, ``We spoke to the government in Beijing about it, following the UN procedure.''

The two epidemiologists, Dr. Cathy Roth and Dr. Steve Martin, will not give a news conference during their week-long visit, Cordingley said.

``They are not supposed to make a lot of noise. This is a delicate matter,'' he said.

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