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SARS Brings Taiwan Recognition of Sorts

May 07, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

TAIPEI, Taiwan — It might be called a bittersweet victory.

The economy is in the dumps and the population is in a panic, but the arrival of the SARS epidemic has had one welcome side effect for Taiwan: The United Nations' World Health Organization dispatched its first official delegation to the island in more than 30 years, making Taiwan at long last feel part of the global community again, albeit at the moment a community of shared illness.

The two-person team of epidemiologists arrived in this capital Monday, as Taiwan was becoming the latest focus of worldwide concern about the spread of the disease.

The island now has 120 cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome and has had 11 deaths. Health officials believe the disease has not yet reached its peak here, as it apparently has in Hong Kong and Vietnam.

"Unfortunately, it is only because of the SARS epidemic that they remembered there is a country named Taiwan. But still, we are glad that they came," Taiwan's health minister, Twu Shiing-jer, said in an interview.

The historic occasion was marked with little fanfare.

Taiwanese officials would not release the names of the two WHO officials, where they were staying or details of their itinerary, fearing that publicity would lead to charges that the government was exploiting the occasion politically.

And the victory was only partial in that the epidemiologists are not scheduled to meet with any Taiwanese government officials during the visit.

"It is a little strange that they are coming to help and they won't meet with the health minister. But I understand their situation, and we don't want to cause them any discomfort," Twu said.

The U.N. kicked out Taiwan in 1971, when China became a member. It has been taboo ever since for U.N. officials to visit here or for Taiwanese to participate officially in U.N. conferences.

Only about two dozen countries -- the United States not among them -- recognize the self-governing island of 23 million people as a sovereign nation.

As part of its long-running effort to gain diplomatic recognition, Taiwan has been lobbying intensely for the last five years to become a member of WHO. More recently, it has asked to attend the U.N. agency's general meeting in Geneva on May 19 with observer status.

"Epidemics know no boundaries," said Chen Chien-jen, a prominent Taiwanese epidemiologist who has worked with WHO as a temporary advisor in the past. "This isn't about politics. Health is the top priority."

Chen said Taiwan needs help from the U.N. agency in diagnosing SARS, which is easily confused with flu or pneumonia. He added that Taiwan is also eager to learn about the expected curve of the epidemic so it can determine how many cases it might have to handle.

Taiwan is experiencing its SARS epidemic later than other countries in the region in part, health officials believe, because direct travel is not permitted between the island and mainland China, where the virus originated.

Although there were isolated cases earlier, the contagion did not begin spreading among the Taiwanese population until April 23, when a number of medical staff at Hoping Municipal Hospital in Taipei fell ill. That cluster was traced to a female patient who had contracted SARS after riding on a train with a man from Hong Kong who was visiting relatives on the island.

Taiwan has since taken some of the most drastic steps of any country to inoculate itself against a further spread of the disease. On Friday, it decreed that anybody arriving from China, Hong Kong, Singapore or Toronto would have to remain under virtual house arrest for a 10-day quarantine period -- a measure that is being vigorously enforced by police.

Many public buildings, hotels, even some stores, have guards posted at their entrances who will not admit visitors until they have their temperatures taken to make sure they are not running a fever -- an early warning sign of SARS. Elevators have signs warning people not to speak inside for fear of spreading deadly droplets. On Tuesday, the island postponed exams scheduled for the end of May for more than 300,000 students trying to qualify for places in high schools.

A Western diplomat said the arrival of the WHO team was less a result of Taiwan's relentless lobbying than of the seriousness of the epidemic.

"There are some people who see it as a political trophy," said the diplomat, who asked not to be quoted by name. "The fact is that WHO is showing a reasonable level of concern."

Maria Cheng, a spokeswoman for WHO in Geneva, said the two-person team will spend most of its time in Taiwan visiting health facilities and meeting with health care professionals.

She said it had not yet been determined how long the two would stay, whether they would bring in additional personnel or whether they would eventually meet with Taiwanese officials.

"They don't know what they will find. They want to make any assessment before they discuss policy," said Cheng.

The Chinese government has said it gave permission for the U.N. agency to visit Taiwan. Cheng would not confirm that but did say that Beijing was "notified before the teams went over."

Taiwanese, for their part, bristle at the idea that China should have to give its permission -- especially after its admitted bungling in the early stages of the epidemic, when officials covered up the severity and spread of the disease.

Said Health Minister Twu: "We have to remember that if it were not for China's cover-up of SARS, we wouldn't have all become victims."

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