- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

While it is premature to declare that the tide has fully turned in the SARS epidemic, the situation appears to be stabilizing, particularly in countries outside of China. The World Health Organization (WHO) has dropped its travel ban on Toronto. In Hong Kong, the number of new cases has declined steadily — for the past week, it has been in the single digits.

However, SARS continues to rage in China, where more than 5,000 people have been stricken and over 250 have died. While China must make improvements in its public health infrastructure to better deal with epidemics, the spread of SARS has been due in no small part to the government’s taciturnity.

It’s worth noting that Beijing, one of the hardest-hit cities, is also scheduled to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. If Beijing reverts back to its habit of silence on SARS or subsequent epidemics, the lives of athletes, their trainers and the rest of their support staffs are likely to be at risk. A global epidemic could spring from the Olympic village, given the close proximity of athletes and the lag between infection and diagnosis. When a country accepts the responsibility for hosting the Olympics, it also takes on the responsibility of being honest about potential hazards.

It’s not to early to consider the problem. Tickets for the 2004 Athens Olympics went on sale this week, and the application procedure for cities hoping to host the 2012 games was launched this month. Moreover, concerns about financial corruption during the buildup to the 2008 games led China’s government to announce last month that “special measures,” such as frequent audits of Olympic organizers, would be taken to avoid such disgraces. Beijing’s silence on SARS is at least as significant a scandal as the bribery in the bidding for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Even in the unlikely event that SARS ceases to be a threat by 2008, other epidemics may well emerge, and so the United States Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should insist that China continue to be open, in all senses of the word, on the SARS epidemic.

China could show its commitment to openness by providing honest, accurate information about how far SARS has spread. It could do so by continuing to acknowledge the extent of its HIV epidemic. It could also do so by allowing Taiwan to join WHO. China’s recalcitrance on the last point has made it more difficult for Taiwanese officials to control the spread of SARS in their country.

China will be nursing a black eye for its silence on SARS long after the last patient from this outbreak has recovered. Earning international trust back will take time. If China’s leaders fail to commit to openness on infectious diseases, the IOC should be prepared to take the 2008 Summer Olympics elsewhere.

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