SARS: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
China the epicentre of world flu outbreaks
, April 5, 2003
The advent of a new, deadly and apparently highly infectious disease - severe acute respiratory disease, or SARS - has thrown into relief a deadly hole in the world's defenses against disease, namely, Taiwan's lack of membership in the World Health Organisation.
SARS apparently began in south China, from where a lot of the new variants on old diseases spring. Because in this environment, animals, especially pigs, and birds live in close proximity to humans, diseases can jump the species barrier.Hot spot
Just about every new strain of influenza has developed in southern China, including the deadly "Spanish flu" in the period at end of World War I, which killed more people than the war did. The emergence of a new strain of influenza, for which the world would be unprepared, has long been a horror story the international health authorities want to leave untold.
Although they have only recently admitted it, the disease apparently began in south China in mid-November, although it wasn't until mid-February that the mainland Chinese revealed that more than 300 cases of the mystery disease had been recorded. Scientists now believe that the virus is paramyxovirus, similar to viruses that cause mumps, measles and other common diseases.
A similar disease outbreak occurred in Malaysia several years ago, the Nipah virus, which spread from pigs to humans, but apparently not from humans to humans. This new mystery virus has, however, proved to be highly contagious. In the first instance, most of the victims were health professionals in contact with the so-called "index cases" - that is, the initial victims. More recently, cases have been springing up over the world, with south China, Hong Kong and Vietnam being the most common sources of the infection.
However, the gaping hole in the international effort to combat the disease has been Taiwan, where some four people have been infected. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been on the case, putting out a rare global health alert about SARS.
However, its reaction has been severely hampered by Taiwan not being in the World Health Organisation. It can be compared to trying to catch fish with a net that has a gaping hole in it - and this nation of 23 million people, while not politically part of China, is in very close contact with the China mainland and Hong Kong. In fact, the air corridor between Taipei and Hong Kong is one of the most heavily travelled in the world.
Taiwan does not seek full membership of the WHO as a sovereign nation, but rather as a "health entity", as part of its campaign to continue its reasonable, non-antagonistic effort to get Taiwan into the WHO and other international organisations based on a realistic assessment of the political situation.
According to Michael Kao, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs in Taipei, who is in charge of Taiwan's campaign to join the WTO, Taiwan and the WHO have a mutually dependent relationship. "They need us and we need them," he said, in a recent interview.
Taiwan has made some notable strides in disease eradication and prevention.
Fifty years ago, Taiwan was riddled with diseases like many poor countries, but now its health indicators have improved markedly. Malaria and polio were eradicated years ago, and in the 1980s, the Government was the first in the world to provide free hepatitis B vaccines, resulting in a tremendous drop the number of children suffering from this ailment.Membership
How realistic is this campaign to join the WHO? By seeking to join as a health entity, Taiwan acknowledges the political reality that it is unlikely to gain membership as a sovereign nation while China opposes it. However, Taiwan joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as a "customs territory" and APEC as an "economic entity."
The WHO charter clearly states that nationhood is a requirement for "membership", but also that any group or individual has the right to participate. Among the current ranks of the WHO, many participate with "observer" status, are the PLO, the Red Cross, and the Sovereign and Military Order of Malta.
This new track has seen the US Congress come out in support of Taiwan's WHO membership, as has the Japanese Government. The last Governor of Hong Kong, now the EU's commissioner for external relations, Chris Patten, has also come out in support of Taiwan.
Taiwan has proved to be an enthusiastic member of the international organisations to which it has been admitted, and its lack of WHO membership is a massive gap in the region's ability to fight disease.