Mon, May 12, 2003 - Page 3 News List

WHA attendance still up in the air ahead of summit

By Melody Chen  /  STAFF REPORTER

The World Health Assembly (WHA) will kick off a week from today, but health officials committed to containing the SARS outbreak have not yet decided if they should go to Geneva.

An assistant to Department of Health (DOH) Director-General Twu Shiing-jer (涂醒哲) said yesterday that Twu's attendance at the summit, which will take place between May 19 and 28, would depend on developments at home.

Twu needs the approval of both the Cabinet and the legislature to attend the WHA. So far, it is still not clear whether either body will permit Twu to go to Geneva, said Twu's assistant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"Nothing is more important than containing SARS," said Chi Hsueh-yun (紀雪雲), spokeswoman for the DOH. "If we can't control the disease, it doesn't make any difference where we go."

While admitting that joining the WHA is very important, Chi said she did not know how many or which health officials would be able to travel to Geneva.

"We have been preparing for the event. I believe the attendance list will be decided very soon," she said.

President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) wrote in a letter to the Washington Post that, at the initial stage of the SARS outbreak, Taiwan achieved an exemplary record of zero mortality, zero community transmission and zero transmission abroad of SARS.

The initial success in controlling the disease boosted health officials' morale as much as the epidemic is now testing their will to fight on.

While speaking on Friday about the hard work his colleagues have been through in combating SARS without help from the World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday, Center for Disease Control (CDC) Director-General Chen Tzay-jinn (陳再晉) was unable to hold back the tears.

CDC officials have been working hard since the start of the SARS outbreak. A CDC official said he and his colleagues are working 17 to 18 hours a day.

Chen was originally scheduled to attend the WHA, but his presence now remains in doubt.

"We hope he can go." said Yuan Chuan-chuan (阮娟娟), director of the DOH's Office of International Cooperation. "But it will take him at least four days to attend the WHA, if travel time is included."

The office has booked health officials flight tickets to Geneva with departure dates ranging from Thursday to Saturday, although it is still unknown who will depart on which date.

Yuan's is also worried that the WHO might put officials from affected areas of SARS under quarantine for a number of days before allowing them to carry out activities in Geneva.

Christine McNab, a press officer from the WHO, said in a phone interview on Saturday that officials and reporters from Taiwan would not be quarantined if they had not visited hospitals treating SARS patients, or contacted SARS cases since May 9.

Even so, it is still possible the WHO will change its travel policy on officials from affected areas of SARS, according to Yuan.

In case Twu will not be able to go to Geneva, the DOH has prepared another plan to cope with the situation, details of which Yuan was unwilling to share.

"We still don't know who our commander in chief will be. How can we deploy soldiers now?" Yuan said.

According to Yuan, of the health officials originally planning to go to Geneva, only a handful of them are disease-control officials.

A number of health officials will be there for the learning experience, Yuan said.

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