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Experts Say SARS Prompting Overhaul of Chinese Health Care System - 2003-06-27

Studies released Friday show millions of the world's children die each year from diseases that are easily treatable or preventable. China is one of the nations suffering most from this problem, but experts say the recent Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome crisis is already prompting an overhaul of China's health care system that may save young lives.

Doctors say routine public health care measures, like vaccinations, clean water and education, can save six million of the ten million children who die annually around the world from disease. Studies just published in the medical journal The Lancet say China is one of six nations with the highest number of preventable deaths for children under five.

China once offered health care to all citizens free or at very low cost, but that once-proud system has been neglected for the past two decades as the country made its wrenching transition from a communist planned economy to one that is more market-oriented.

World Health Organization experts who came to China fight the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome virus have been pressing China hard to put money and resources back into its decrepit health care system.

WHO spokesman Bob Dietz says Beijing was listening. "{The lesson driven home by SARS in China is that a modern nation needs a strong health care system as much as it needs good roads or bridges, or buildings," he said. "The money that goes for these public health services shouldn't be considered a negative expenditure. In reality, investments in health care are investments in the social and economic health of the country."

China's new leadership, including Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, say health care will get more money, particularly in poor rural areas. Prime Minister Wen recently dedicated a new children's hospital in Beijing. He says China needs better medical and hygienic conditions for children in rural areas. And he says poor people across China must be able to afford medical care.

But it remains to be seen if China can find the money and maintain the political will to repair its health care system when other difficult and expensive problems also need attention.

Among other things, Beijing has to find ways to resolve hundreds of billions of dollars worth of bad loans that threaten the banking system, clean up huge environmental problems left over from decades of break-neck development, and find jobs for millions of people thrown out of work by the collapse of many state-owned enterprises.