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Taiwan Loses Bid for WHO Observer Status

Health agency won't consider the issue at its assembly. SARS crisis deepens on the island.

May 20, 2003|Anthony Kuhn | Special to The Times

BEIJING — Taiwan's SARS crisis worsened Monday, as more hospitals were affected and scores of medical personnel resigned, while in Geneva, the island failed in its seventh attempt to attain observer status with the World Health Organization.

On Sunday, in a move that seemed certain to irk Beijing, the United States had said it would back the Taiwanese bid to become a WHO observer. China, which recently protested a U.S. congressional resolution in support of Taiwan's efforts, considers the island a province and opposes any participation by it in global organizations, which would imply sovereignty.

"It's good for all countries -- small, large, developing and developed -- to have as much information about this disease as quickly and currently as possible," U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told reporters in Geneva on Sunday, referring to severe acute respiratory syndrome.

"That's what the observer status would give, and that's why it's important for Taiwan to have it," he said.

But the WHO -- which excluded Taiwan from its ranks in 1972, after the United Nations, the agency's parent body, granted membership to China -- elected not to consider the matter during a 10-day meeting of its general assembly, which kicked off Monday.

Both Taiwan and China have delegations at the meeting in Geneva. Taiwan's is led by Health Minister Chen Chien-jen, an epidemiologist with a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. He was chosen to replace Twu Shiing-jer, who resigned after the disease spread in hospitals in the capital, Taipei.

Chen's counterpart, Chinese Health Minister Wu Yi, is leading a large delegation from the mainland. Wu took over as health minister after her predecessor, Zhang Wenkang was dismissed for his role in an official cover-up of the extent of the epidemic.

Beijing consented to a WHO delegation's visit to Taiwan this month to investigate the SARS outbreak there. But it remains adamant that the island must not gain any form of membership in the agency.

The Chinese capital saw its increase in SARS cases drop into the single digits Monday for the first time in weeks. China reported 12 new cases and five deaths, of which three deaths and seven new cases were in the capital. China has reported a total of 5,236 infections and 289 fatalities.

Taiwan reported no new SARS cases Monday, but today it announced 39 new infections, a daily record, and four deaths. The island now has had 383 cases and 44 deaths from the illness.

On Sunday, 36 new cases were reported, most of which were found in two of the island's best hospitals, National Taiwan University Hospital in Taipei and Chang Gung Hospital in the southern city of Kaohsiung.

Local media reported the partial closure Monday of at least two hospitals, including Taipei's Municipal Kuandu Hospital. The shutdown isolated more than 200 patients and health-care workers inside the facility after SARS infection was suspected in several workers.

Staff at Chang Gung Hospital and Taipei's Ho Ping Hospital quit en masse following the deaths of colleagues, the reports said.

About 90% of Taiwan's SARS cases have occurred in hospitals, where patients have alleged both cover-ups and misdiagnoses.

In a bid to boost morale among medical staff, President Chen Shui-bian, wearing a surgical mask, presided over the opening Monday of Sungshan Military Hospital, Taiwan's first designated SARS facility.

"All of us have to be prepared for long-term combat against SARS," Chen said. He pledged that hospitals would be adequately supplied with protective gear to shield health workers.

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