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Taiwan Welcomes Rare Chance to Join WHO Conference on SARS

Taiwan's leaders are welcoming a rare opportunity to take part in Tuesday's World Health Organization conference on Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

For the first time in 30 years, Taiwan will officially participate in a World Health Organization event. The conference, which opens Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur, is entitled "SARS: Where do we go from here?"

For decades, China has blocked Taiwan from membership in the WHO. Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province and claims sovereignty over the island, and has previously blocked it from participating in organizations whose members are normally independent states.

WHO officials say they consulted with Beijing before inviting Taiwan to participate.

Taiwan officials are downplaying the political significance of their participation, saying the focus of the conference will be on technical issues related to the disease.

Taiwan is the third hardest-hit area in the outbreak, with almost 700 SARS infections and more than 80 fatalities. Two of the four Taiwanese doctors invited to the conference could not attend, because they have recently been treating SARS patients, and there was a risk they could have infected others at the conference.

The WHO has lifted travel advisories for all Asian regions except Beijing and Taiwan, amid signs that the spread of the disease is being brought under control.

Taiwan reported no new infections or deaths Monday.

But Dr. David Heyman, chief communicable disease officer for the WHO, points to a recent second wave of SARS infections in Toronto as a warning against complacency. He says key questions about the disease remain unanswered. "Will the virus remain and begin its transmission again when the seasons change? If it is not seasonal, what are the risk factors that led in the past and could lead again in the future to this disease entering human populations?"

Worldwide, SARS has killed more than 800 people and infected more than 8,400. Most of the cases have occurred in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.