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Swiss discuss health issues with Chinese

Zeltner has just returned from a trip to China Keystone

Federal Health Office director Thomas Zeltner has just visited China. He told swissinfo the Chinese had stepped up measures to combat the deadly Sars virus.

Zeltner was in China and Hong Kong for talks on preventing the spread of Sars, bird flu and Aids, and to lay the groundwork for an accord on cooperation in health-related issues.

During his five-day trip – which ended on Tuesday – Zeltner visited Beijing for a meeting with the health authorities before moving on to Shanghai to attend an international conference.

He spent the latter part of his visit in the former British colony of Hong Kong, where he meet local officials and gave a talk on the Swiss public health system at the university.

China is the country hardest hit by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or Sars, with almost 350 deaths from the virus that was first discovered in the southern province of Guangdong in November 2002.

The country was dropped from the World Health Organization’s list of affected areas in June last year.

swissinfo: Beijing was criticised for its handling of the Sars crisis. Do you think the authorities have learned from that?

Thomas Zeltner: They certainly have. First of all, they are really openly addressing the crisis and talking about it.

Secondly, they have really increased their surveillance system across the whole country, and they are about to build a centre for disease control. So we are pretty confident that they have carried out a lot of measures.

Whether these will be effective if a new epidemic occurs, only time will tell. But certainly they are much better prepared than in the past.

swissinfo: Turning now to the growing problem of bird flu, does that have the potential to become an epidemic as well?

T.Z.: Unfortunately yes. This virus seems to have the potential to be transferred from birds to humans.

This rarely occurs. But since the virus has changed, it may eventually become very infectious to humans.

This might be the beginning of a local, regional or even worldwide epidemic, because flu is transmitted from one person to another much more easily than Sars, for instance. That might then be something that we have to worry about.

swissinfo: China’s problems controlling the Aids epidemic have been well documented. What sense did you have that the authorities are dealing with the problem?

T.Z.: They now recognise that they have an Aids epidemic in the country. In the past they just denied it. The Chinese minister of health said that they were short on prevention programmes and treatment possibilities and that they were looking for help.

Most support is now coming from the World Health Organization, the Global Fund to fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria and other countries. Switzerland offered material and technical help, which was accepted.

swissinfo: The UN says that Aids cases have climbed by nearly 50 per cent in East Asia since 2002, fuelled by epidemics in China, Indonesia and Vietnam.

T.Z.: There is no doubt that the number of cases is rising rapidly in China. The start of China’s Aids epidemic probably goes back to the blood donating system where blood was collected from farmers under non-sterile conditions.

These farmers have been infected and the disease is now spreading through sexual transmission into the general population and that is, for the time being, certainly not under control.

swissinfo: You also discussed a bilateral accord on health issues with the Chinese.

T.Z.: There is already one accord on research and development, and we would like to complement that with an agreement on cooperation in the health sector. And we hope we might be able to sign it by May 2005 when the [Chinese] minister of health will travel to Switzerland for the World Health Assembly.

The accord would allow for an exchange of information and technical cooperation between Switzerland and China, and we would work together in four areas: surveillance of infectious diseases, health legislation, traditional Chinese medicine, and HIV/Aids.

swissinfo-interview: Isobel Leybold-Johnson

The worldwide Sars death toll is 812: 348 in China and 298 in Hong Kong.
Since last December, Asia has been hit by two waves of bird flu; 11 people died in Thailand.
China claims fewer than one million HIV and Aids patients, in a population of 1.3 billion.
The UN says Aids infections in East Asia have risen by almost 50% since 2002.

Discussions focussed on the control of Sars, bird flu, as well as Aids as a new problem in China.

Also on the agenda was how traditional Chinese medicine could be integrated into western medicine, a topic which Zeltner says is of particular interest to the Swiss.

The Chinese were also interested in Swiss heath legislation and biomedicine research.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR