Taiwan Scores Invite to WHO Meeting

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Nicky Loh / Reuters

Airport staff monitor for signs of fever among passengers at Taoyuan International Airport in Taiwan on April 28, 2009

As nations around the world waited for word on the swine flu outbreak this week, Taiwan got some long-awaited news of its own. After over 10 years of trying, Taiwan received invitation on Wednesday to attend the United Nations World Health Assembly (WHA) as an observer in the 62nd meeting of the World Health Organization's governance body in May. It will be the first time that Taiwan, an island of 23 million people, has been allowed to participate in a United Nations body since it lost its U.N. seat to China in 1971. Taiwan has been pushing for an invitation every year since 1997, only to have their application be repeatedly blocked by China, which sees the democratic island as a Chinese province and therefore ineligible to participate alongside other sovereign states. "It's an inevitable development," says Political Scientist Yang Tai-shuenn of Taipei's Chinese Culture University. "The pressure from the international community has been accumulating. Health is a universal value China cannot continue to reject."

Never is the importance of global health cooperation more clear than moments like this week, as dozens of nations work together to curb the spread of a new and deadly infectious disease. Many might think that the swine flu outbreak may have prompted WHO's Director General to give Taiwan the green light to join its governing body, which meets once a year, but the invitation has been rumored for weeks in Taipei. During the SARS crisis in 2003, Taiwan's application was rejected because of Beijing's opposition to their entrance. As China's next door neighbor, Taiwan was greatly impacted by SARS with 346 cases and 73 deaths. And at the time, because it was not a WHO member, it could not directly report to the WHO or receive direct assistance. (Read about Chinese tourists in Taiwan.)

Taiwan and China relations have warmed greatly since Ma Ying-jeou became Taiwan's president last May. Since then, China and Taiwan have held three rounds of unprecedented talks — the first in 60 years — to agree on milestones like establishing direct flights between Taiwan and China and opening Taiwan tourism to Chinese citizens. Last weekend, they agreed to enable each other's banks to set up branches on either side of the Strait, and more than double the number of weekly direct flights that started last year. Before Ma's time, passengers traveling from Taipei to Shanghai had to go through a third city like Hong Kong, which made an 80-minute trip a 7-hour long haul. "The increase of mutual trust between Taiwan and China is also one of the key reasons for our entrance in the WHA," said Taiwan's Health Minister Dr. Yeh Ching-Chuan on Wednesday.

Yang says China's nod to let Taiwan in this time was a gesture of goodwill. The WHA is a relatively low-risk international body for China to allow Taiwan to enter, as it is a health body, without strong political implications that could allow Taiwan to be treated as an independent nation. Taiwan has been invited to participate under the agreed upon name "Chinese Taipei" — the same name Taiwan uses for its Olympic team.

To health officials in Taiwan, the invitation did not come a moment too soon. The swine flu is expected to be the focus of the May 18-27 meeting in Geneva. "We will now be able to get firsthand information and assistance, and also provide our experience," said Dr. Yeh. With its experience fighting SARS, Taiwan is considered one of the more well prepared places for outbreaks of communicable diseases. On Tuesday, health experts began inspecting air passengers from North America before they disembark from their planes, and keeping anyone with flu-like symptoms for further tests. At least this year, Taiwan will be able to fully join the fight against swine flu. "With the recent outbreak, " Dr. Yeh said Wednesday, "the whole world needs to fight this together."

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