Sunday, May 13, 2007

Int'l Herald Tribune: U.N. health chief faces test over bird flu cooperation, Taiwan membership bid

GENEVA: Less than six months into her job as the U.N.'s top health official, Dr. Margaret Chan faces a double challenge this week that will test her ability to defend the interests of the World Health Organization against those of her native China.

At issue are the sharing of samples of the H5N1 bird flu strain and Taiwan's participation in the work of the WHO.

The self-ruled island, which has for 10 years failed to gain observer status within the health body because of China's objections, changed tactics last week and made a plea for full membership ahead of the annual meeting of the WHO's governing assembly.

Chan has so far rejected Taiwan's request on the basis that the island is not recognized as a sovereign state by a majority of WHO members.

But Taiwan's allies could try to force a debate about the relationship of the 22 million Taiwanese with the WHO onto the agenda when the World Health Assembly convenes in Geneva on Monday.

"Whether Taiwan is a sovereign country or qualifies as a member of the WHO is not something to be determined by the secretariat but rather to be decided by all its member countries," Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian said on Friday.

In the unlikely event that the assembly decides to hold a vote, Chan would be placed in a difficult position as mediator between Taiwan and China, which has always claimed that the island, which split from the Communist mainland in 1949, still belongs to Beijing.

At present, all official communication between the WHO and Taipei must be addressed to China, and even visits to Taiwan have to receive permission from Beijing first.

Taiwan argues that this jeopardizes its ability to cope with major medical emergencies, noting that in 2003 it took a WHO team six weeks to arrive on the island after an outbreak of SARS was reported.

U.S. Health Secretary Michael Leavitt wrote to Chan on Wednesday saying the WHO's disease reporting and response efforts need to be seamless.

"Any gap in such efforts threatens the health and well-being of all nations," he said in the letter, obtained by The Associated Press.

Leavitt said the United States supports observer status for Taiwan and wants Chan to "promote the participation of officials and experts from Taiwan in the organization's technical activities."

Currently, a "memorandum of understanding" signed by the WHO and China requires Taiwan to seek permission from Beijing to attend key meetings of the health body.

The WHO acknowledges the existence of the memorandum, but has so far refused to reveal its exact contents.

On bird flu cooperation, another of Chan's priorities, the focus in recent months has been on negotiating a deal with Indonesia to resume sample sharing with the WHO.

Officials in the southeast Asian nation say the current system is unfair because the WHO passes virus samples on to drug companies for research purposes, but any vaccines developed from these specimens would likely be too expensive for many in poorer countries.

The dispute has, for the time being, overshadowed concerns by health officials that China, whose large poultry stocks and vast territory make it an ideal breeding area for bird flu, is dragging its feet over the supply of virus samples to the WHO.

Lack of cooperation, experts say, can slow efforts to track the disease and develop vaccines and other flu-fighting strategies.

China is currently preparing to send five virus samples to the WHO, according to the organization's spokesman, Gregory Hartl.

But no samples have been received from China for about a year, during which time Beijing reported numerous cases of H5N1 — including in humans.

When Chan took office in January the Hong Kong-born doctor said she was best qualified to obtain Chinese cooperation on sample sharing.

The global meeting of WHO delegates this week will be the first opportunity to assess whether her efforts are bearing fruit.

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