Help Taiwan Fight SARS
Friday, May 9, 2003
The outbreak and spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, has brought illness, death and economic peril to Asia and the rest of the world. It has also drawn attention to Taiwan's exclusion from the World Health Organization. If there was ever a time for my country to be allowed to join the WHO, it is now.
As Taiwan's democratically elected president, my first and foremost obligation is to the people of Taiwan. When SARS first appeared in Taiwan in March, our health system responded quickly and effectively. As a result, Taiwan initially achieved a record of zero mortality, zero community transmission and zero transmission abroad of SARS. But despite our efforts, another outbreak occurred in late April. We have taken strict measures in response, and are working day and night to contain the disease.
Throughout this health crisis, my government has acted in the best interest of our people and of foreign nationals living in and visiting Taiwan. At no time has my administration suppressed information about the disease. Our press has reported freely on SARS. More important, our officials know that they are accountable to the people, both morally and at the ballot box. Whatever problems arise for Taiwan, we will solve them according to the highest standards of medicine, government accountability and human compassion.
I also have an obligation to the world. Taiwan is a nation of 23 million people and a major trading partner for many countries. What happens in Taiwan affects many millions more around the world. For that reason, Taiwan immediately offered to work with the WHO in combating SARS. Unfortunately, we were rebuffed. However, in response to the most recent rise in the number of cases, and for the first time in decades, two experts from the WHO arrived in Taiwan last week. I welcome this assistance and have directed my government and called on my people to cooperate fully with them.
The WHO's decision to send these experts to Taiwan has great significance. It demonstrates that Taiwan is indispensable to international public health. But it also suggests that cooperation between the WHO and Taiwan should not be left to ad hoc arrangements.
Despite my country's advanced health system, staffed by doctors and nurses educated in highly respected institutions at home and abroad, and despite a strong desire to participate in the WHO, Taiwan is denied membership or even observer status in the organization. As a consequence, our epidemiologists are still unable to gain prompt access to information, such as samples of the virus, that could help our scientists learn about the disease and treat patients. Nevertheless, we have tried to provide information to international organizations to ensure that Taiwan can make the maximum contribution to solving this health problem.
The effort to understand and control SARS continues. Viral experts seek answers to important questions. Doctors and health professionals on the front line of the battle against SARS need as much information as possible to be able to deal with the disease. Moreover, like the WHO, international health officials need as much data as possible about SARS and the way it behaves in different environments and among different populations.
Taiwan, with a population larger than those of three-quarters of the countries of the world, is a piece of a global puzzle that experts need to understand to cope with the virus. Taiwan has long wanted not only to benefit from the WHO's expertise but also to share the responsibility that all countries have to global public health. Many health care professionals around the world have expressed their support for Taiwan's admission to the WHO as an observer. We are grateful.
We hope that at the WHO meeting on May 19, this important organization will invite Taiwan to be an observer. Taiwan's people should not be excluded from efforts to defeat SARS. Nor should the rest of the world be denied the important contribution Taiwan can and wants to make to global health.
The writer is president of Taiwan.