WHO lifts Toronto travel advisory

GENEVA - Citing a sudden ebb in the SARS epidemic in Toronto, the World Health Organization lifted yesterday its week-old advisory urging people to delay unnecessary travel to the city because of the highly infectious respiratory illness.

But in Asia, severe acute respiratory syndrome continued its spread as Hong Kong reported 12 new deaths, China nine and Singapore one.

The global death toll from SARS climbed to at least 355, with more than 5,300 infections in more than 20 countries, including probable cases reported for the first time in South Korea, Mongolia and New Zealand.

Travel warnings still stand for Hong Kong, Beijing and two Chinese provinces, as Premier Wen Jiabao acknowledged that his government failed to act quickly against the disease.

Wen, whose country has been severely criticized for concealing the scope of its SARS epidemic, promised at an emergency summit yesterday that China would work closely with the international community to contain the disease.

Making his first overseas trip since taking office a month ago, Wen met in Bangkok, Thailand, with leaders of Southeast Asian nations and vowed that a new spirit of openness would prevail in China, where officials have withheld information from international health officials.

"There is a need for us to recognize the fact that the SARS epidemic is going to be a long-term, a complex and a relapsing epidemic," he said. "What we lacked was prevention and control experience. Our countermeasures were, by far, inadequate. We have already learned our lesson."

The World Health Organization said the incidence of SARS probably has peaked in many places, but it fears the situation is worsening in China, where 200 new infections were announced yesterday. There have been at least 148 deaths there.

Nearly 10,000 people who might have been exposed to the virus have been put under quarantine in China - including 7,600 in Beijing.

World Health Organization Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland said now that Chinese authorities were being more open about the extent of the disease, it would be easier to help them.

"We believe we have a window of opportunity to contain SARS globally now," she said.

Brundtland said her organization would maintain its advice to avoid all nonessential travel to Hong Kong - as well as to the other hard-hit areas of mainland China.

Canadian officials were outraged when the WHO advised April 23 against nonessential travel to Toronto, ranking it alongside Beijing and other parts of China and Hong Kong. At the time, the organization said the travel advice would remain for at least three weeks - double the maximum incubation period for SARS.

The advisory caused an immediate drop in the number of tourists to Toronto.

In return for the decision to lift the travel advisory, the Canadian government promised to do more to prevent the spread of SARS by screening passengers leaving the country.

Brundtland said the advisory was lifted because there had been no new outbreaks in the community at large for 20 days. She stressed that Toronto is still an "affected area" and that travel guidance would be re-evaluated if there are any new cases.

The decision to lift the advisory takes effect today. Canadian officials were delighted.

"Our city is safe, and I want everyone to come and experience all that Toronto has to offer," Mayor Mel Lastman said.

Ontario Health Minister Tony Clement and his delegation met with Brundtland for an hour yesterday in Geneva. They said Canadian authorities would introduce new screening measures on people leaving the country.

Hong Kong and Singapore already have put such screening measures into effect.

"We certainly know our vigilance must not stop and that we have a responsibility inside and outside our own borders to continue and to win the fight against SARS," Clement said.

Health officials are stationed at Canada's major airports to watch for symptoms among passengers arriving from SARS hotspots in Asia, where the illness originated. All international travelers receive information cards on SARS, and similar measures will be applied to passengers leaving Toronto.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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