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Taiwan a SARS 'loophole'

From CNN's Mike Chinoy

A health worker checks a man for SARS.
A health worker checks a man for SARS.

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TAIPEI, Taiwan -- As Taiwan struggles to contain the SARS virus sweeping across the land, officials say the fact the island is not a member of the World Health Organization has made their task harder.

"The whole world recognizes that if Taiwan is not part of the WHO or part of the international medical community, then Taiwan is going to be a serious loophole in containing the SARS disease," says Joseph Wu, Taiwan Presidential Advisor.

Indeed, it took seven weeks after Taiwan's first SARS case before the WHO dispatched two experts here, and then, only with Beijing's permission.

Taiwan now has the third-highest number of SARS victims behind China and Hong Kong.

Taiwan's health minister Twu Shiing-jer quit his post Friday over criticism of the way authorities have handled the outbreak.

His decision came after numerous complaints about disorganization, lack of effective crisis management planning, and political bickering.

Dr. Lee Ming liang, who heads Taiwan's anti-SARS effort, says that Taiwan being out of the WHO loop during a critical time made a bad situation worse.

"We kept sending out results and results. We got some response but not in an active way," says Dr. Lee.

The island's hospitals have been particularly hard hit, with three reporting clusters of SARS patients in the past few days.

Hundreds of doctors and patients have been quarantined. A number of doctors quarantined have been respiratory disease specialists.

"Because we didn't have those kinds of data and procedures from the WHO, that is the reason why we had the hospital outbreak a few weeks ago," says Wu.

Taiwan has been seeking WHO entry, or at least observer status, long before SARS.

But Beijing, which views the island as a renegade Chinese province, has consistently blocked such efforts.

"Taiwan, as a province of China, is not entitled to join the WTO or participate as an observer," says Zhang Qiyue, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.

"We are strongly opposed to the attempt of Taiwan to join the WTO in any capacity."

Taiwan officials say that just shows Beijing is playing politics with SARS, although analysts point out the island has certainly tried to exploit SARS to push its own agenda for a higher profile, separate from China.

Despite the outbreak, the signs indicate Taiwan's application for WHO observer status will be rejected at this week's meeting of the organization's administrative body in Geneva.

It is likely that deference to Beijing's political sensitivities will outweigh public health concerns as the SARS epidemic in Taiwan continues to spiral out of control.

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