The spread of avian influenza has escalated, with one man confirmed infected with the H7N9 virus and poultry farms in western Taiwan hit by H5N6, in the wake of an outbreak in eastern Taiwan.
Although outbreaks of avian flu were earlier reported in Japan and South Korea, Taiwan has been slow to deal with the virus, in sharp contrast to the orderly approach adopted in combating severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003.
The Council of Agriculture and the Ministry of Health are leaders in national quarantine, but the response of the two agencies has been hindered by a recent change in leadership.
Nevertheless, the Cabinet must take the lion's share of blame for poor supervision, having only established the Central Disaster Emergency Operation Center after poultry farms in western Taiwan were hit by avian flu.
The failings in quarantine work are many. In late January, a Taiwanese man working in Guangdong Province, China, was confirmed as being infected with H7N9 after returning to Taiwan, though an airport fever screening station and later a medical center initially failed to detect the virus.
It was not until 10 days after returning that the man's infection was confirmed. In 2013, the world's first case of H7N9 appeared in Shanghai, with the local medical authority confirming the virus and completing its analysis in one day.
Taiwan's first case was confirmed after hundreds of cases around the world, but still local medical facilities failed to identify it.
Most H7N9 cases have been identified in China, where it has been discovered that when the virus passes from migratory birds to ducks it remains non-lethal, but when chickens are infected it generally results in large numbers of deaths.
Taiwan is located on the migratory route of many birds and as such it should have already taken the necessary steps to guard against H7N9, but failed to do so.
Quarantine work to prevent the spread of H5N6 has been equally lacking. China has been dealing with an outbreak since 2014 and the spread of the virus in South Korea last November resulted in the culling of 33 million poultry, one fourth of the nation's poultry farms. In Japan, nearly 1.5 million birds were exterminated.
However, Taiwan's government has been unmoved by the danger, failing even to urge nationals to be more vigilant.
The nation has an impressive record in combating SARS. When the first SARS case was reported in Guangdong in 2002, Taiwan's health experts kept a close watch on the situation and made proposals to deal with the threat to the government.
After South Korea and Japan reported avian flu, the World Organization for Animal Health put Taiwan on notice, aware that migratory birds from Siberia travel southward through South Korea and Japan, to spend the winter in Taiwan.
There is also an issue with the mindset of officials, as they tend to focus on the problem of human-to-human transmission and seem inexplicably relieved when dealing with "birds-to-human" cases.
The impact of avian flu on humans has been minimal. Only 11 people have died from H7N9 in China and there is no reported human-to-human transmission of H5N6 in Japan or South Korea. However, its impact on the poultry industry has been devastating.
The H5N6 outbreak decimated South Korea's poultry industry, forcing it to briefly import eggs.
Now that a national emergency operation center has been established, the government must mobilize all resources, convene daily meetings of experts and ensure inspection stations rigorously check vehicles transporting poultry.
In addition, the slaughtering of poultry in markets should be banned.
We expect the government to be on full alert as it seeks to combat the outbreak of avian flu as it was during the fight against SARS. (Editorial abstract - Feb. 14, 2017)
(By Lilian Wu)