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    "Taiwan's Lonely Quest for Help on Health" in Washington Post

"Taiwan's Lonely Quest for Help on Health"

Washington Post - August 1, 2001

Diplomatic Dispatches

Lee Ming Liang, Taiwan's U.S.-trained director general of health, is on a crusade to get his country's population of 23 million adequate access to world health forums, data and special programs.

But five attempts by Taiwan to join the World Health Organization's assembly, not as a full member but with observer status, have been denied, most recently in May. The International Committee of the Red Cross, Rotary International, the Vatican, the Palestine Liberation Organization and Malta all enjoy observer status at the World Health Assembly, according to Lee, a graduate of the Rutgers University medical school in Piscataway, N.J.

Taiwan also has been denied entry into other organizations that Lee, a pediatric geneticist and molecular biologist, views as essential resources in battling the AIDS pandemic.

China, which considers the self-governing island part of its territory, has successfully campaigned to diminish the global status of Taiwan, which is recognized by only 28 countries. The United States withdrew its recognition of Taiwan in favor of China in 1979.

"We are not going into this as a national entity," Lee said. "Twenty-some million people are at risk at this point. I hope people understand we are not troublemakers. . . . Health should be divorced from politics."

AIDS cases in Taiwan have risen from a scattered few to 4,000 -- far fewer than the 1 million with HIV or AIDS in Thailand, he noted, but still worrisome. "I am worried about how we can prevent this from picking up momentum," he said in an interview Monday. "Unless we ask, nobody thinks of us -- as if we are nonexistent."

In 1998, Taiwan lost 80 children after the outbreak of the enterovirus type 71, an intestinal ailment. "We were virtually left alone to fight it, and felt isolated," Lee emphasized. Through personal ties, some Taiwanese physicians established contact with the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the help was "not timely" for the children who died. The board of aGeneva-based public health alliance told Taiwan it could not be included, because the group is managed within the WHO, although it said it would try to be helpful on a "case-by-case basis." Other groups just advised Taiwan not to apply.

"What we are seeking is modest, not ambitious. From a humanitarian point of view, we ought to be part of all this. We need help and we can help others, too," Lee said, pointing out that his country has spent $100 million on health programs since 1995 in 78 countries that have no diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

U.S. officials he met at the American Institute in Taiwan, which handles relations in the absence of formal diplomatic ties, spoke of "political realities" but told Lee not to give up. "If the United States cannot help us, who can? If the U.S. is not willing to help us, then who will?" he said.

Taiwan supported China's successful bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics as a "gesture," he explained. "If we set politics aside, we can have the Olympics in China, and if, politics aside, Taiwan seeks observer status in health organizations, this is very, very reasonable."

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