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Health safeguards for Taiwan, too Tariana Turia

Health safeguards for Taiwan, too Tariana Turia,

Co-leader, Maori Party Wednesday

17th May 2006

With continuing bird flu problems in Asia, it is in New Zealand and the region's interests for Taiwan to be given observer status at the World Health Assembly in Geneva this month, writes Tariana Turia, Health Spokesperson for the Maori Party

Last week, New Zealand's response to the Avian flu epidemic was a topic for serious Parliamentary debate. In the context of that debate, the Maori Party referred back to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The 1918 virus is recorded to have caused 2160 Maori deaths - which were about 42.3 per thousand deaths.

But that figure could be much higher, because at that time not all Maori deaths were recorded. Maori died at seven times the Pakeha rate, and were one in four of the dead.

The 1918 flu virtually annihilated some communities. Its spread worldwide was even more savage, reputed to have lost some twenty to fifty million lives.

The Spanish flu of 1918-19 shares genetic characteristics with the Avian Flu virus H5N1 - and as such we should all be considering the cost of the enormous losses we saw in the past - and how we can invest in the future-proofing of all populations across the globe who may be vulnerable to attack.

World health should not be a matter of political point scoring. It is in this context that I have been considering the wishes of Taiwan for world nations to ordain them with observer status when the World Health Assembly, decision-making body of the World Health Organisation, meets in Geneva next week, from May 22 to 27.

Taiwan and its 23 million people should not cut off from front-line deliberations on the spread of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu. By rights, Taiwan, as a world citizen and trading partner, should be a full member of the WHO.

Taiwan, in the interests of pragmatism, is prepared to settle at this stage for observer status. That will at least enable them to prepare quickly for any flu outbreaks, and to play their role in preventing any serious world pandemic from developing. Taiwan has appealed for New Zealanders to help. It is not just a matter of health safety and humanitarian concern for their island.

Taiwan is also an international transportation hub, linking Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia.

The Director-General of the WHO, Dr Jong-wook Lee, recently confirmed, after avian flu cases in Nigeria, that no country was immune to H5N1. "Every country is at risk," he said. "Every country must prepare."

Denying Taiwan access to normal and regular access to the WHO system in effect imposes health discrimination against one country. And this is certainly not in the interest of the world community.

As Dr Lee noted: "The SARS epidemic showed us we cannot afford any gap in our global surveillance and response network." If a pandemic develops, or any other international health issue arises, it is essential that all nations of the world are equipped to play their part.

Sickness and disease should not be based on political allegiances. Indeed, world health is not an issue to play politics with. Observer status at the table of the World Health Organisation should not necessarily be construed as political recognition but it would reflect a commitment to international health cooperation.

A virus does not need a visa to travel. In our Pacific paradise - we must be just as vigilant in calling on our sources that we can to play our role in maintaining defences against H5N1 and other health threats. Granting Taiwan a seat at the table doesn't seem too big an ask.

ENDS

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