Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Excluding Taiwan from WHO is a prescription for disaster - World Health Organization

The World Health Organization's (WHO's) stated purpose is to facilitate "the attainment by all people of the highest possible level of health." Its membership includes more than 190 nations. Some you'd need a magnifying glass to find on a globe. Others are countries whose governments constitute the primary threat to the health of their people--among them Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Sudan and Iraq.

A number of nonstate entities have observer status, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and International Red Cross. Conspicuous by its absence is Taiwan, with a population larger than 75 percent of WHO members. Thus, the island's 23 million people currently are excluded from WHO's touted objective of helping "all people" to attain "the highest possible level of health."

When it meets in Geneva in mid-May, WHO's governing body will have an opportunity to rectify this injustice. For the seventh time, Taiwan will apply for observer status. Other international bodies have made an effort to accommodate the island. It's currently a member of the World Trade Organization as a "customs territory" and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group as an "economic entity."
But once again Taiwan's bid for recognition by WHO will meet with formidable opposition from the People's Republic of China. In the international arena, Beijing wishes Taiwan to be invisible. It opposes any participation for the island in WHO as a member or even as an observer.

More than petulant, this is downright dangerous. In an age of globalization characterized by the increasing flow of people and goods internationally, excluding 23 million people from WHO--especially those whose island is situated at the hub of Asia's trade--is perilous.

At its 107th session in January 2001, WHO's executive board cautioned: "The globalization of infectious diseases is such that an outbreak in one country is potentially a threat to the whole world. The need for international cooperation on epidemic alert and response is greater today than ever before due to increased population movements, growth in international trade and biological products, changes in methods of food processing [and] social and environmental changes."
When it comes to Taiwan, the WHO simply ignores this threat. Taiwan already has reported several cases of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), the new and highly contagious form of pneumonia that originated in China. Exclusion from WHO means Taiwan can't participate in the organization's Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, which monitors disease trends and shares health data among its partners.

Taiwan also had to go it alone in 1998 when the enterovirus epidemic swept the island, killing 80 and hospitalizing more than 400.
When an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale hit Taiwan in 1999, killing more than 2,400 and leaving 100,000 homeless, WHO wasted precious time trying to devise "unofficial" ways to provide "indirect" medical assistance to survivors. By contrast, its response to the 1997 avian-flu epidemic in Hong Kong was swift and sure.

From the perspective of global-health concerns, it makes sense for Taiwan to be part of WHO. Millions visit the island each year and millions of Taiwanese travel abroad. There's a constant flow of health-risk-related products entering and leaving the island annually, including $2 billion in animals and animal products, $2.3 billion in vegetable products and $2.5 billion in prepared foodstuffs.
Taiwan could make a considerable contribution to WHO's global efforts. It has abundant health resources that it is eager to share with the world. Taiwan has eliminated most infectious diseases (including smallpox, rabies and malaria). It boasts one of the highest levels of life expectancy in Asia. Its healthcare system is rated among the best in the developed world.

Each year Taiwan bestows more than $120 million in medical aid and humanitarian relief on 78 countries. It currently has medical teams hard at work in Malawi, Chad, Burkina Faso and a number of other nations.
Keeping Taiwan's 23 million educated and energetic people outside the WHO is a waste of human resources and a danger to both the Taiwanese and the international community. This is a fact recognized by the World Medical Association, the Japanese government, the European Union's commissioner for external relations and the U.S. House of Representatives (by resolution adopted March 11). All have urged WHO to grant observer status to Taiwan.

It remains to be seen whether health considerations and common sense overcome the latest aspect of China's international vendetta against Taiwan.


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