Thu, May 22, 2003 - Page 3 News List

New DOH head faces disappointment in Geneva

A technical meeting of the World Health Assembly declined to hear a briefing by Chen Chien-jen, the new director-general of the Department of Health, even though six other SARS-affected countries and territories explained their situations. Chen shared his thoughts with `Taipei Times' staff reporter Melody Chen

By Melody Chen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Taipei Times: When did you know you might be able to present Taiwan's SARS situation in the technical briefing? What were you prepared to say in your presentation?

Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁): When President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) appointed me to head Taiwan's delegation to the WHA in Geneva, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) told me they would try to arrange an opportunity for me to do a presentation in the technical briefing. At that time, the technical briefing ruled that delegates from all affected areas would be able to present reports.

Only after I arrived here did I realize that the WHA only allowed its member states to present such reports.

The MOFA then invited Liberia and Chad to request the WHA provide an opportunity to hear my report. Unfortunately, we were not granted the opportunity.

Even so, I was thinking that it might be possible for Taiwanese experts to answer the audience's questions after other countries' presentations. But as other countries' presentations were quite long, we did not have the opportunity to do this either.

It was unfortunate, because the chairman of the technical briefing [World Health Organization (WHO) Secretary-General Gro Harlem Brundtland] treated the issue as a political one. The technical briefing should be of an academic and professional nature. She should not treat it as a political issue.

What I prepared to say in my presentation was the observation of Taiwan's SARS epidemic and hospital infection control measures.

Before April 20, our hospital infection control was very successful, because we had gained considerable experience on this aspect from Singapore, Hong Kong and Canada. Our control of imported cases was quite good too. National Taiwan University Hospital did well in infection control when treating Taiwan's first SARS patient.

However, after the outbreak in Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital on April 20, we found Taiwan's hospital infection control had failed, which led to further large-scale outbreaks.

We think it is essential that the World Health Organization and other countries learn from Taiwan's experience so as not to repeat our mistakes.

Apart from control of hospital infection and imported cases, I also planned to report on Taiwan's domestic isolation measures, which needed to be reviewed.

When we set up standards for domestic isolation, our knowledge about SARS was inadequate.

These standards might be too strict. Singapore and Hong Kong once suspended schools in order to contain the disease. According to the current understanding of the infection routes of SARS, these measures were too strict and might have caused some unnecessary situations.

Actually, I have prepared slides for my report. I might only have five minutes for my report, but I prepared 10 slides for it. It is really a shame I was not allowed to report.

TT: Last weekend, you had a videoconference with David Heymann, executive director of communicable diseases for the WHO, and other SARS-affected countries. What did you learn from the conference and what information on Taiwan's SARS outbreak did you share with other countries?

Chen: In the conference, all participating countries reported the epidemiological features of their outbreaks, such as infection period, incubation period, fatality rates and preventive measures.

I reported twice on Taiwan's experience, each time for about 10 minutes. I talked about the epidemiological features of Taiwan's outbreak. The videoconference was very pleasant. Perhaps we were too naive. We thought the WHA technical briefing was of the same nature as the videoconference. I did not realize such technical briefings would be politicized in the WHA.

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