AVIAN FLU: by Osman ChiaNews Weekly
China obstructs fight against flu pandemic
, April 1, 2006
China has vetoed the participation of Taiwan in the World Health Organization (WHO). Osman Chia shows that the consequences could be disastrous.Avian influenza (bird flu) is now acknowledged as a global threat. According to Dr David Nabarro, United Nations System Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza, deaths from a possible pandemic could reach between 5 to 150 million.
Even the rather conservative World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that the number could fall between 2 to 7.4 million deaths. The social and economic ramifications could be equally, if not more, catastrophic.
Avian influenza is, undoubtedly, a trans-national threat that poses serious challenges to the security of the global village. Given the speed and volume of international air travel today - reflecting the growing inter-connectedness of the world - the virus could effectively spread to every continent in less than three months.
Dr Lee Jong-wook, director-general of the WHO, warned that "we are facing a challenge which is potentially much bigger than SARS".
On the vital importance of closer cooperation in global disease prevention, Dr Lee stated, "We cannot afford any gap in our global surveillance and response network."
Taiwan is gravely susceptible to the spread of avian influenza. The island's unique geographic location, however, makes Taiwan an optimal choice for a regional hub and strategic pivot point for tracking and combating the deadly virus.
It is at great peril that Taiwan remains excluded from the global disease-prevention-and-control network.
Experts claim that the next pandemic is most likely to occur in Southeast Asia, as the region has experienced sustained outbreaks of avian flu for the past three years.
As of November 1, 2005, Taiwan's neighbours - Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia - had reported 122 human H5N1 cases, with a fatality rate as high as 50 per cent.
Taiwan is witness to a huge movement of people from different countries in this region, and currently employs more than 315,000 foreign workers from Southeast Asia.
In 2004, the number of people from Taiwan visiting Southeast Asian countries exceeded 1.43 million, while the number of people from Southeast Asian countries visiting Taiwan was approximately 570,000.
As for travel between Taiwan and China, the number of people from Taiwan visiting China reached 3.39 million in 2004, while the number of people from China visiting Taiwan was approximately 72,000.
The number of people crossing over the region's borders every day is a testament to the profound danger that exists should there be a disruption of these important flows of human migration and trade. Therefore, necessary measures must be taken to ensure that the deadly virus is controlled and closely monitored by all available means.
Inclusive mechanisms need to be established to avert a lag in the coordination of prevention measures. Such a lag could have a devastating impact on the regional economy and consequently undermine regional stability.
Migratory birds are the natural reservoir of avian influenza viruses. Taiwan is an important transit point for migratory birds. There are approximately 1.25 million migratory birds of 351 species that annually pass through Taiwan or reside in Taiwan in the winter season.
These migratory birds are predominantly from Siberia and north-eastern China, flying to Taiwan along the south-eastern coast of China, Japan and Korea, and then proceeding onwards to the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and as far as Australia.
Even with an advanced health care system and early prevention system for an influenza pandemic, Taiwan alone still cannot hope to keep the virus at bay. In fact, no country can.
The SARS epidemic showed that an aggressive disease outbreak, in spite of its speed and force, can be contained and stopped if there is an effective and comprehensive platform for global cooperation.Seven-week delay
In March 2003, Taiwan promptly reported its first SARS case to the WHO and requested its assistance. However, the WHO did not respond until almost seven weeks later.
At the critical outset of the outbreak, Taiwan was prohibited from participating in several WHO expert meetings and video-conferences and did not have access to adequate disease-control information.
Such neglect was a primary reason for a mild outbreak in Taiwan becoming a grave tragedy, resulting in 73 deaths, serious social disruption, and enormous economic loss.
A study conducted by Taiwan's Department of Health in August 2005 estimated that although the current avian influenza has been localised in poultry populations, once it mutates into a human-to-human virus, it could infect 5.3 million people, hospitalising 70,000, and causing up to 14,000 deaths in Taiwan.
In the global fight against the avian and human influenza pandemics, Taiwan has the ability to produce a generic version of Tamiflu and holds an optimal geographic location to serve as a platform for responding to a crisis, and thus would be able to make significant contributions to controlling the outbreak of a pandemic.Serious threat
According to the most recent WHO statistics, Vietnam is the country most seriously threatened by avian flu. In response, Taiwan donated 600,000 Tamiflu capsules to Vietnam and has arranged collaborative research projects and training programs on various diseases with its medical institutions.
Taiwan possesses practical experience, resources and medical achievements that it can share with the world in dealing with these diseases. In 2000, the Economist
Intelligence Unit ranked Taiwan's medical practice second among all developed countries and newly industrialised countries, after only Sweden.
The people in Taiwan - including more than 400,000 foreign nationals residing on the island - should have the same rights as all human beings to direct, complete and immediate access to the WHO system.
So far, Taiwan has been allowed only limited participation in some WHO technical meetings. It has attended 10 meetings hosted or co-sponsored by the WHO since the World Health Assembly in 2005.
It is still very difficult for Taiwan to participate in important member-state-based conferences, however, even when they are technical in nature. Considering its geographic location, the huge masses of goods and people that move in and out of its borders and its wealth of medical resources, Taiwan should be at least invited to member-state-based meetings as an observer.
The world has the opportunity to learn from its past mistakes. The disconcerting developments in Southeast Asia and the spread of the deadly virus into Eastern Europe point to the urgency of addressing a greater problem - gaps in the global health safety net.
Taiwan's rich resources can serve as an invaluable asset in the protection of the global village. In the face of the emerging threat posed by avian influenza, Taiwan's exclusion from the WHO is a liability for safeguarding the health of the world's inhabitants.
Given Taiwan's unique geographic location, the world, by ignoring the inherent rights of 23 million people to full access to WHO mechanisms, is essentially shutting out an integral component of the world's health chain.
In doing so, the world is creating the very gap in the global health safety net that is imperative for it to fill.Endangering health
It is abundantly clear that the world community cannot afford to discard the fundamental principles of the WHO and allow political differences to endanger the health of all peoples.
Taiwan is willing to put aside the politically contentious issue of WHO membership and is instead seeking only to become an observer in this important global health institution in the capacity of a health entity.
Moreover, as a willing participant in the world health community, Taiwan is determined to fulfil its obligations to the peoples of the world. Therefore, the world community must include Taiwan in the global health network for the greater well-being of all.
- Osman Chia is director of the information division, Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Australia.