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Rediff.com  » News » SARS virus spreads in Asia,
Canada's toll climbs

SARS virus spreads in Asia,
Canada's toll climbs

April 26, 2003 10:13 IST

The Philippines reported its first fatalities from SARS on Friday, while Canada sought to reassure the world that Toronto was safe despite a travel warning by world health authorities and a rising death toll.

In Taiwan, authorities quarantined more than 1,100 medical workers in an attempt to contain the flu-like disease that has hit Asia hard.

Despite an upbeat assessment by Canadian officials this week that SARS was coming under control in Canada's biggest city, authorities reported three more deaths from the disease in Toronto and eight new cases among health care workers, bringing Canada's toll to 19.

"We're not entirely out of the woods on everything, but we're moving along day by day," Dr Jim Young, Ontario's commissioner of public safety, told a news conference.

Asian health chiefs met in Malaysia on ways to tackle the disease, trying to standardise how they tackle SARS -- for which there is no known cure -- and prepare for a Bangkok SARS summit of the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations and China next Tuesday.

SARS, a respiratory infection with a mortality rate of about 6 per cent, has killed at least 278 people and infected about 4,800 in 25 countries.

It spreads via coughs and sneezes but can also be transmitted by touching contaminated objects such as elevator buttons.

The disease has caused widespread alarm in mainland China and in Hong Kong, each of which has reported 115 deaths.

Taiwanese authorities sealed the Taipei Municipal Ho Ping Hospital on Thursday after more than 25 suspected SARS cases were discovered, and more than 1,100 doctors, nurses, patients and visitors will have to stay there for up to two weeks.

Many caught in the hospital were furious. "I am not sick. Why should I be quarantined?" a nurse shouted at reporters.

Taiwan, which has reported only 49 probable SARS cases despite strong business and ethnic ties with China and Hong Kong, added to precautions by suspending landing visas for Hong Kong residents for one month.

In Hong Kong, the acting head of the hospital authority, Ko Wing-man, offered to resign for not doing enough to stop the spread of SARS, but a US health expert advising the government said any health authority "will be hard pressed to deal with something like this."

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, criticised for vacationing in the Caribbean during the height of the crisis, said the WHO was wrong to warn against non-essential travel to Toronto, the epicenter of SARS in Canada.

To prove the point, he said he would sleep in Toronto on Monday night and shift Tuesday's Cabinet meeting there from the capital, Ottawa. He also said new anti-SARS measures would be announced next week.

"We all believe that the World Health Organization came to the wrong conclusion. We believe that Toronto is a good place to visit. It is a safe city," Chretien said.

Canadian officials bitterly contested the travel warning, saying the disease was not being spread freely in the metropolitan Toronto area of about 5 million people.

There were 335 probable and suspect SARS cases in Canada, while 10,000 people had gone into voluntary quarantine since the outbreak began in March.

The New York Times backed Canada. "It looks safe for Americans to travel to Toronto without fearing that they will come into contact with SARS patients," the newspaper said in an editorial on Friday.

The WHO justified the warning against Toronto because the country was exporting cases to the world, and the Philippines confirmed on Friday a nursing assistant and her father died of SARS this month after the daughter returned from Toronto.

WHO contagious diseases expert Dr David Heymann said travel advisories help keep the disease from spreading to countries whose health systems would have trouble coping.

"So, our recommendations are not made for one or two specific countries. They're made for a global community in which everyone must be a partner," he told a daily briefing.

Another WHO official said SARS could become a horrifying epidemic if it spread in China or in nations like India and Bangladesh, where people live closely together with poor medical facilities.

"There will be various countries in the world where we would be really concerned because we don't think they have the capacity to stem the tide once it is introduced," WHO official Wolfgang Preiser told reporters in Shanghai.

In Toronto, there was more anger than panic, with medical officials speaking out against the WHO warning, and citizens, very few wearing masks, going about their business.

"My life hasn't changed," said Debbie Tillman, a bank worker travelling in Toronto's subway. "I'm still shopping, seeing movies and going to watch hockey."

The economic fallout from SARS spread across the globe, weighing on stock prices and currencies. In New York, SARS added to the gloom for investors.

"Stocks are slip sliding away today as investors wring their hands over a number of concerns, ranging from a less-than-encouraging GDP report to the worldwide SARS epidemic," said Tom Reynolds, analyst with Schaeffer's Investment Research, in his market update.

Airlines, already suffering from the effects of the war in Iraq, were hit as businesses cut travel to SARS hot spots.

Russell Blinch and Benjamin Kang Lim in Toronto and Beijing