| Canada Prime Minister Jean Chretien after a Cabinet meeting in Toronto. (Reuters)
Geneva, April 29 (Reuters): The World Health Organisation announced today that it would lift from tomorrow its warning against unnecessary travel to Toronto imposed last week amid fears over the spread of the SARS virus.
The decision was announced at a news conference by WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland after talks with Canadian officials, including the health minister of Ontario, the province where Toronto is located. “We will be lifting the travel advice for Toronto, Canada, effective tomorrow,” she said.
“The outbreak (in Toronto) has lower magnitude than seven days ago... so there is a different evaluation one week later,” declared Brundtland, herself a doctor and former Prime Minister of Norway. Other travel advisories — affecting Hong Kong, Beijing and two major regions of China where the flu-like virus is believed to have originated — “remain the same,” Brundtland declared.
The original WHO decision brought a storm of protest from Canada, which saw the recommendation as hitting hard at its national economy and especially that of Toronto, its financial capital.
Canada is the only country outside China and south-east Asia where people have died from the respiratory disease which has killed more than 350 people around the globe since it began in southern China last November. A total of 21 of these deaths were in the Toronto area.
The flu-like SARS — or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome — is spread mainly by coughing and sneezing and has no known cure.
It was taken to Canada and to more than two dozen other countries by unsuspecting air travellers.
Toronto health officials said SARS had been largely restricted to people working in hospitals where the original cases were taken, but last week the WHO said it was concerned that the disease was still spreading into the local community.
Ontario’s health minister Tony Clement, who came to Geneva to talk to Brundtland, said: “We believe we have done almost everything right.”
Canada said that 20 days — roughly twice the incubation period — had elapsed since the last known case outside a medical centre.
That is the standard period used by the WHO and other health bodies for deciding whether any infectious disease has been contained. Yesterday, the WHO said Vietnam — which had reported some cases — now appeared free of the disease.
Reality in China
China’s Premier Wen Jiabao said today he has come “to face reality” about SARS and pleaded for trust, while Asian leaders hammered out plans to fight outbreaks that have killed hundreds and threatened economic growth.
China, harshly criticised for covering up the disease initially, reported nine more deaths and more than 200 new cases today, most of them in Beijing, as the virus raged unabated in the country at the epicentre of the outbreak.
Asian leaders drafted a sixpoint plan to control the SARS outbreaks, which have killed more than 350 people and infected 5,500 in nearly 30 countries, including rigorous screenings of international travellers.
Leaders of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), along with China and Hong Kong, were encouraged that the WHO saw the virus — with no known cure — already peaking in Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Canada. The Asean is keen to get Premier Wen Jiabao’s support for strict new measures, including pre-departure and arrival checks at airports and ports across the region.