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China gets tough, Canada bristles

Beijing/Toronto, April 24 (Reuters): China sealed off a major Beijing hospital today to quarantine SARS-affected areas, and angry Canadian officials rejected the World Health Organisation’s warning to travellers to stay away from Toronto, now one of the epicentres of the virus.

Toronto officials, worried about the toll on city businesses, huddled in emergency session to devise strategies to cope with the fallout from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which has killed 16 people in the area.

Although it is the only country outside Asia where people have died from SARS, Canadian officials said the WHO warning was unjustified and told the agency to “get its facts straight.”

Hours after the WHO advised people against going to Beijing, Chinese police took positions around the 1,200-bed People’s Hospital to stop people going in or out. The WHO has also warned against travel to Hong Kong and China’s Guangdong and Shanxi provinces.

“No one is allowed to enter or leave,” a member of the 2,300-strong staff said. “There are policemen and security guards standing outside.” The hospital is not one of those set aside to treat SARS patients but it has at least 60 confirmed or suspected cases among nurses and doctors.

It was the latest action by a government that declared war on SARS last week, five months after the virus first appeared in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong and led to 4,600 infections worldwide.

There have been 330 probable or suspect cases of SARS in Canada, of which most were in Toronto, which has a large ethnic Chinese population.

The outbreak has also sent thousands into quarantine and is taking a heavy toll on business in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, which accounts for about a fifth of Canada’s economic output. Concerns about SARS are also weighing on the Canadian dollar with investors fretting about the economic impact of the disease.

“Let me be clear. If it’s safe to live in Toronto, it’s safe to come to Toronto. I dare them to be here tomorrow,” said Mayor Mel Lastman, referring to the WHO.

But it was clear the economic damage had been done. “Whether the people in Canada see it as much of a threat, the fact of the matter is it’s really discouraging anybody from outside Canada to even venture into Canada because of it,” said David Ebata, managing analyst at economic research firm Thomson IFR in Boston.

Singapore’s toll rose to 17 fatalities and two suspected ones. The city-state said all visitors entering and leaving would have their temperatures checked.

Taiwan closed off a hospital in Taipei after city officials said another 16 people may have been infected.

Meanwhile, the WHO today said that Vietnam — one of the first countries to be hit by SARS — had controlled the killer virus, offering hope that it can be contained. “In Vietnam, certainly, the disease has been brought under control. We have not had any new cases for over 10 days,” said Dr Julie Hall, coordinator for the WHO’s global outbreak alert and response unit.

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