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WTO Brings Hope of Improvements in Health Sector

Chinese people will be able to buy imported AIDS medicines more cheaply, visit an experienced foreign dentist in the neighborhood and use the latest medical technology to fight the flab, according to an international seminar in Beijing yesterday.

Wang Longde, vice-minister of health, said these were only some of the benefits that will arise now that China is in the World Trade Organization.

The week-long workshop brought together China's top health officials, representatives of medical institutions, academics and foreign experts to discuss the implications of China's WTO membership on the health sector.

One of the most cheerful messages for the public was that tariff charges on imported medicine are to drop from the current average of 14 percent to between 5.5 and 6.5 percent by next year, while the tariff level on imports of large-sized medical equipment will be halved to 10 percent by 2003.

The tariff reduction should benefit stroke victims and patients suffering from AIDS or tuberculosis as access to advanced drugs and care has been restricted until now by exorbitant prices and import controls.

Yet some problems will arise. Wang highlighted the food-safety issue and the growing difficulties of keeping viruses and bacteria from foreign sources in check as China interacts more with the outside world.

Citing official figures, Wang said that 82,000 people crossing the border into or out of China last November had a virus or disease. This figure included 210 people with HIV or AIDS.

Wang said of the problem: "It will be a tough nut as China will see a growing interaction of humans after the WTO entry."

The seminar was the first time that top Chinese health officials had met to examine the WTO issues.

In an interview with China Daily yesterday, Nick Drager, a coordinator at the Department of Health Development of the United Nations' World Health Organization, said the dialogue can help bring together health officials and their peers in the world of trade to gain a better understanding of how the WTO will affect health care.

Drager said: "I have seen a growing awareness among Chinese health officials of the need to look into the agreement. This will facilitate their work on a series of health issues related to the WTO era, such as policies on health, opening services and setting regulations."

But Janos Annus, the top representative of the WHO in China and a long-time expert on health issues in China, said Beijing still faces difficulties before it can deliver the goods.

Annus said in an interview yesterday that the biggest issue right now is to provide equal access to health care for all of Chinese people.

He said: "The inequity is still there. The health-care coverage in the urban area is still low and, in rural regions, there is still a lack of a health insurance system."

Concern at the proportion of health spending that goes to urban dwellers has grown in the wake of the restructuring of the health insurance system in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

With a population of 1.3 billion, China has 22 percent of the world population.

(China Daily January 29, 2002)

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