Treating the World

From Taiwan Review 2018-04-19

Courtesy of Ministry of Health and Welfare, ROC

Taiwan is using its extensive medical expertise to improve global health.


The fight against diseases such as dengue fever and Zika got a welcome boost in January when the government established a branch of the National Mosquito-Borne Diseases Control Research Center in southern Taiwan’s Tainan City. The new facility is equipped with state-of-the-art laboratories including several units of fully furnished housing in which researchers can study the behavior of mosquitos in typical living environments. The scientists’ findings may lead to the development of new and better substances to combat the insects, which can transmit a variety of diseases.


The Tainan branch is expected to help the institution take on a significant role in the global fight against disease, said Liao Ching-len (廖經倫‬), director of the center, which is operated by the National Health Research Institutes, a nonprofit foundation funded by the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW). “Our center is on the front lines of the fight against mosquito-borne diseases, working to benefit people at home and around the world,” he added. According to the MOHW, such illnesses make up 17 percent of the world’s infectious diseases and cause 750,000 deaths globally each year.


Taiwan has considerable health care expertise to share with the world and as such can make major contributions at international forums such as the World Health Assembly (WHA), which will be held May 22-31. In 1971, the Republic of China (Taiwan) withdrew from the U.N. and its specialized agencies, among them the World Health Organization (WHO). After campaigning for several years to gain observer status in the WHA, the supreme decision-making body of the WHO, Taiwan achieved its goal in 2009 and has since attended the annual conference.


“Many countries could learn from the development of health care in Taiwan, as we’ve succeeded in fighting numerous infectious diseases and accumulated rich experience in tackling noninfectious chronic ailments as well,” said Lin Shih-chia (林世嘉), executive director of the Foundation of Medical Professionals Alliance in Taiwan, a Taipei City-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) that has for decades been a proponent of the nation’s full inclusion in the WHO. “Taiwan has many inspiring stories to tell about the development of its National Health Insurance program and excellent medical services,” she added.


Participants simulate treating Ebola patients and attend lectures at a training camp organized in Taiwan in cooperation with the U.S. government. (Photo courtesy of MOHW)

Benefit of Experience


Taiwan’s geographic location presents the government with unique medical challenges. “Situated in the world’s most economically vibrant region, the nation is a major transfer hub for people and goods. Accordingly, it has a relatively high risk of being affected by infectious diseases,” MOHW Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中‬) said when explaining the need for Taiwan to be well-prepared for possible disease outbreaks.

The minister cited the occurrence of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, and newly emergent epidemic diseases in recent years as proof that illness knows no borders. He also said that countries around the world have reacted positively to Taiwan’s disease-prevention methods, which have been honed over time as the nation has responded to health emergencies at home and abroad. More importantly, he added, the international community has realized that only through global cooperation can the world overcome the severe threats posed by contagious diseases and ensure the health and well-being of all.


“Taiwan is always quick to report cases to the WHO, as in the first H7N9 case locally this year in February when a patient with the virus arrived from mainland China,” Chen noted. The CDC also passed the results of its research on the February case to the WHO, and uploaded information on the genetic sequence of the virus to a database operated by the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data, a nonprofit platform based in Germany.


Striving to Help


Taiwan has developed into a medically advanced country, and as such is fulfilling its duties as a responsible global citizen by sending missions abroad to provide health care services to those in need. A notable government effort in this respect was the establishment of Taiwan International Health Action (TaiwanIHA) in March 2006. Co-founded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the MOHW, TaiwanIHA is an international health aid organization that utilizes resources from the nation’s public and private sectors.


TaiwanIHA’s first project consisted of sending four experts to ROC diplomatic ally Burkina Faso to battle a major bird flu outbreak in the West African country. The organization’s most recent missions include performing cataract surgeries in Sri Lanka, providing dental care in India and treating patients with craniofacial deformities in Vietnam and Indonesia.


Taiwan is also sharing its expertise with medical professionals from around the world. In 2015, the nation started working with the U.S. government to host disease-fighting training programs in Taiwan. Five have taken place to date, with experts invited by the U.S. teaching health officials and technicians from a total of 18 Asian countries how to efficiently diagnose and battle Ebola, MERS, or Middle East respiratory syndrome, dengue fever, Zika and chikungunya. The camps also provide an opportunity for participants to build an international network for monitoring diseases and responding to outbreaks in the region.


Collaboration between the research center and Paris-based Pasteur Institute is expected to help Taiwan make significant medical contributions in Southeast Asia. (Photo courtesy of National Mosquito-Borne Diseases Control Research Center)

Looking Forward


Building on this solid foundation, the government is now looking to expand its engagement in global health care initiatives, as evidenced by President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) remarks as she introduced Toward 2030: A Global Health Agenda as the theme of the 2016 Global Heath Forum in Taiwan. “One can imagine that, in the world of 2030, there will be a lot more cross-border movement of people and goods. This means communicable diseases will represent a bigger challenge. Accordingly, all nations bear a joint responsibility to share information and work hand in hand to fight against new types of communicable diseases,” she said at the event, which featured 52 speakers from Taiwan as well as 30 other countries. “If Taiwan is not included in the global health system, a vital piece of the worldwide disease control puzzle will be missing.”

The president’s observation highlights the importance of endeavors like the National Mosquito-Borne Diseases Control Research Center. Ex-Premier Lin Chuan (林全) echoed Tsai’s comments when he spoke at the opening ceremony of the institution’s Tainan branch. “I expect this to become the world’s foremost research center for mosquito-borne disease studies and a global platform for exchanges of talent in the area,” he said. The premier added that he especially looks forward to broader interactions in this field between Taiwan and South and Southeast Asia under the New Southbound Policy, which is a key component of Taiwan’s national development strategy seeking to deepen links with these regions as well as Australia and New Zealand.


The research center is helping further the policy’s objectives, in addition to building cooperative relationships with nations around the world. A notable recent effort in this regard is its work with the Paris-based Pasteur Institute, which is at the forefront of the global battle against infectious diseases. The partnership began after officials from the two sides met at a conference on dengue prevention in March in Tainan. By teaming up with the institute, which has a significant presence in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, Liao said he expects the Taiwan institution to make significant contributions to these nations, and that talent exchanges will soon follow.


“Helping these countries fight disease will enhance relations across the board,” Lin said. “But ultimately Taiwan is taking action because that’s what it should do as a responsible member of the international community.”