Taiwan: WHO Inclusion Vital to Fight Epidemics
Minister Hou Sheng-mou urged next week's annual assembly of the WHO to grant Taiwan observer status so that the world health body could better combat a potential influenza pandemic linked to avian flu.
Experts warn such an outbreak could kill millions of people.
"If Taiwan cannot be a World Health Organisation member, that will be a loss to Taiwan ... but it will also be ... a danger to the rest of the world," Hou said in a telephone interview with Reuters.
Diplomatically isolated Taiwan is pursuing its ninth consecutive attempt to win acceptance at the WHO in the face of stern resistance from Beijing.
China, which views the self-ruled island as a breakaway province, opposes its participation in most international organisations.
Hou feared Taiwan's continued exclusion would mean it could not receive or offer vital information in the case of a deadly disease outbreak.
This could prove especially risky now. U.N health officials say the world faces a high risk of a flu pandemic stemming from Asia and are on guard for signs that a strain of bird flu is mutating into a form easily transmissible to humans.
"We are facing a new world. We are threatened," Hou said. "These diseases don't respect international boundaries."
WHO's 192 member states are expected to review Taiwan's request when they meet in Geneva next week.
Its membership is supported by the United States and Japan.
But China has blocked Taiwan's application for years -- even during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis in 2003 which killed 800 people, mostly in Asia.
Taiwan, which is only recognised by 25 countries, was ejected from the United Nations in 1971 and replaced by China.
Beijing has in the past said Taiwan could not take part in the WHO because membership of a U.N. body should be limited to sovereign states.
Taiwan has proposed joining as a "health territory", using a model similar to its membership in the World Trade Organisation which it was allowed to join in 2001 as a "separate customs territory".
Next week's WHO meeting will discuss prevention measures against bird flu along with other global health challenges such as polio, malaria, cancer and HIV/AIDS.
The first human deaths from bird flu were reported in early 2004. Since then 36 Vietnamese, 12 Thais and four Cambodians have been killed.
Taiwan slaughtered more than 400,000 fowl last year after recording a milder form of bird flu, but has not had any case of the H5N1 strain which is dangerous to humans.
Hou said this was due in part to surveillance and preventative measures, adding that Taiwan was stocking up on flu drugs like Tamiflu in case of an outbreak.
But he said he did not believe Taiwan was still at high risk of a SARS outbreak, despite being hit in 2003. "I think the SARS event is gone," he said.