If Taiwan were hit by an epidemic, the WHO would not stand idly by just because Taiwan is not one of its members, a British epidemiologist said in Taipei yesterday.
"I was here in Taiwan during the severe acute respiratory syndrome [SARS] outbreak at the request of the WHO," Sir Roy Malcolm Anderson said at a press conference held on the opening day of the first UK-Taiwan International Networking for Young Scientists Symposium on Infection and Immunity.
"Although you may not be a member, the director-general of WHO at that time and director now, of course, will help any country ... there is absolutely no doubt about that, " Anderson said. "The UK and the US will help as well."
Taiwan is excluded from the International Health Regulations and has repeatedly failed in its bid to become an observer or member of the WHO because of Chinese obstruction. As a result, it is denied direct contact with the WHO, including in the areas of disease control and prevention.
When SARS hit in early 2003, Taiwan had to rely primarily on the US Centers for Disease Control for outside assistance, but was in the dark about how to contain the disease in the early stages of the outbreak.
A total of 37 people died from SARS in Taiwan.
The incoming rector of the Imperial College London said that Taiwan's own confidence and ability to deal with epidemics were as important as any outside help it might receive.
One such potential epidemic is avian influenza, as fears that it could grow into a global pandemic mount.
Anderson identified six areas that individuals and governments should pay attention to in countering the spread of the disease, including better international surveillance, less close contact with poultry, biomedical research advancement and changes in personal behavior.
"Very simple things matter ... sensible behavior in large populations can minimize exceeding spread, " he said.
If avian influenza were to spread, residents of the infected area should wear face masks, wash their hands with alcohol and engage in "social distancing," or avoid going to places where large crowds are gathered, Anderson said.
He also suggested that governments prepare detailed plans to deal with an outbreak and practice them in advance because when an epidemic emerges, there are only a few days to react.
Although China has improved its disease surveillance enormously after the SARS outbreak in 2003, information-collection capabilities are still poor in rural areas, he said.
"My worry is that we may lose a week or more when the epidemic has started because it's so difficult to get accurate information from this large population [in China]," Anderson said. "It's a hard truth, but it is a truth."
The symposium was sponsored by the British Council in Taipei, aimed at fostering a closer relationship between scientists in Taiwan and the UK.
Sixteen young scientists from the UK traveled to Taiwan for the first symposium.
Young Taiwanese scientists may also travel to the UK to facilitate future exchanges, said Edmond Hsieh (
Additional reporting by Angelica Oung