US Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt visited China Daily website for an exclusive interview by Li Xing, chief of China Daily International Department, at the chinadaily.com.cn office in Beijing December 10, 2007. He also answered some questions submitted by netizens. Leavitt is in Beijing for the China-US Strategic Economic Dialogue.
Li Xing: Hello everyone, and welcome to China Daily online. Today we have the honor to have Mr Michael Leavitt, US Secretary of Health and Human Services to be with us, to chat with Chinese netizens online. Well, here we are. Welcome.
Michael Leavitt: Thank you. I'm pleased to be with you, and also with your readers and viewers.
Li Xing: Well, Mr Leavitt, I know that you have this huge department to lead and your motto is to ensure every American has good health care and every American who is in need gets care. But I know it is a tremendous task, because to be frank, so far the United States has not yet become a role model for other countries to follow as far as a universal heath care system is considered. China, in that way, also has a lot of difficulties. What are the challenges and difficulties that our two countries share?
Michael Leavitt: China and the United States have much in common. One is our aspiration that Americans have access to affordable basic health insurance. Right now there are too many Americans who do not have health insurance and we want to change that. We also understand the need for us to be helping Americans understand that health care isn't the goal. The goal is health. It isn't to treat people after they're sick, but to keep them healthy. And we want to focus more and more of our efforts on prevention so that we're not having to spend as much and that there's not as much suffering as there currently is. We know that in the United States and I think this would be true in China and other countries, that a very high percentage of the diseases people suffer from are preventable. And if people eat better diets, if they get screenings for diseases that can be prevented, or at least managed if they get them, that their lives are happier and healthier.
Li Xing: As far as prevention is concerned, Chinese netizens have a question. Chinese medicine is renowned for its preventive effects, but apparently the American authorities still have second thoughts about introducing traditional Chinese medicine to the public.
Michael Leavitt: We have a very well defined system protecting our drug distribution system. For example, we want to assure that anything consumers buy have been tested and have been confirmed safe and effective. There's a lot of interest in traditional Chinese medicine. When I was in western China I had the chance to go to many different local communities and I would go in to see the doctor and see the pharmacy. We would open up the little drawers and there would be bark and leaves and other kinds of things and the pharmacist would take them over and shave some of them off and show me how they would write a prescription. And I met with a doctor who actually diagnosed – felt my pulse and we talked about my health. I came away understanding this is a very important part of the way health care is delivered in China. And that when you're dealing with 800 or 900 million people in rural areas, it may be the only practical way. Now we have at our National Institutes of Health, a center that is interested in alternative medicines. Dr (Andrew) van Eschenbach, who is the head of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) who is a world renowned cancer doctor, and also Dr (Elias) Zerhouni, who is the head of the National Institutes of Health, they both have interest in traditional Chinese medicine. And we've talked about the fact that at some time in the near future we'd like to come to China and explore this more.
Li Xing: As far as I know last year you came on a fact-finding tour. As you said, you visited a lot of places. High on your agenda was to find a way for China-US cooperation in health care. Could you elaborate on how much, and by how far China and the US have gone in cooperation or in establishing cooperation in health care and how we exchange our information. Has there been progress?
Michael Leavitt: Well there's some significant cooperation that the United States and China has. For example, last year we had more than 500 scientific exchanges between scientists and doctors in the United States and China. We have an ongoing discussion right now about how we can have safer drugs and how we can have safer food and how we can have safer medical devices and how consumers in the United States can access devices that are produced here in China, and also those in China can access drugs and or devices from the United States, so that's an important cooperation. We've also begun to have formal dialogue between our health ministries on how health care is organized in China and the United States. So we are making progress as we go, and I think there is a growing amount of cooperation.
Li Xing: Let's talk about food and medicine safety. Especially since July you have been chairing the inter-agency working group on import safety. This working group was established because of the media reports. Increasing media reports about import safety issues like toys and foodstuff, animal feed and medicine. I've learned that you have come up with an action plan, with a lot of recommendations and even 50 steps working towards ensuring import safety. Could you elaborate on what this action plan is all about?
Michael Leavitt: First I would like to emphasize that the concern about the safety of imported products into the United States is not restricted to China. This is not about China and about the United States alone. This is a subject that is being discussed all over the world. And in the United States, we receive products from hundreds of different countries or a couple hundred different countries. So our concern is more general than just China. Now there have been high profile cases where the media has discussed them a great deal. And we view these as warning signs for all of us that the existing system of product safety is not adequate. It's good but not adequate. And things are changing. More and more of the products we get in the United States or that we consume in the United States are produced in other countries like China. So we're having to upgrade and continually improve the way our process works. So our president asked me to head the group that you've talked about. And we spent about six months making a concentrated study on import safety. We found that it was going to require some improvement on our part.
Li Xing: In what way? I mean, what specifics?
Michael Leavitt: Let me give you some specifics. One of the things we concluded was that our basic strategy had to change. In the past we have been at our borders and tried to catch things that were not safe, so we could prevent them from coming in. There's so much now that we simply cannot inspect everything.
Li Xing: Could you give us a figure?
Michael Leavitt: Yes. About 2 trillion US dollars (worth of goods) a year is imported into the United States. It comes from about 800,000 different sources and is imported through nearly 300 different ports of entry. So you can see it ranges from food and drugs, but also automobiles, airplanes and there's virtually nothing now that isn't… or some component of it that is not manufactured outside the United States. So we want to change our strategy rather than just trying to prevent things from coming in. We want to help other countries build quality into their products. So we've been meeting with the Chinese government, for example, saying if you want to produce goods for American consumers, and we want you to, then you need to do it in a way that meets our standards of safety and quality. Likewise, we want to sell products to Chinese citizens and we would expect to meet your standards of quality. In order to accomplish that, we need to have our two systems work together more closely, and from that discussion came the negotiations between the Chinese government and the US. And tomorrow we will be signing some very important agreements between our two countries.