- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2003

TORONTO — Canada’s largest city is scrambling to contain another SARS outbreak while it struggles to reassure the world that the city is safe.

Public health authorities reported yesterday that the disease has killed three more persons, bringing the local death toll to 27. The three are among eight new probable and 26 suspected cases under investigation.

“These cases did not appear magically overnight,” said Dr. Colin D’Cunha, chief medical officer for the province of Ontario. “These eight cases go back to the 19th of April and spread over the last month.”

The province has yet to declare a health care emergency as it did a month ago, but authorities are taking many of the same drastic measures: closing three hospitals, canceling elective surgery and asking thousands of people to quarantine themselves as a precaution.

“We hoped it wouldn’t happen, but we planned for it to happen,” said Dr. Brian Schwartz. “What we’re doing is asking hospitals and community health care providers to flip the switch back into outbreak mode and get this under wraps.”

Meanwhile, the worldwide death toll from the SARS virus surpassed 700 yesterday, after Taiwan reported 12 new deaths and China reported seven.

Although all the new cases in Toronto are linked to its original SARS outbreak, the setback poses a serious threat to the city’s health care system and its economy.

News of the outbreak prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reissue a travel advisory for Americans heading to Toronto. It tells travelers to avoid health care settings where there’s a risk of being exposed to the virus.

But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican and a surgeon, said Canada appeared to be taking the right steps.

“I think when you couple these emerging infections … you realize how important it is for us as a nation, and an international community, to be prepared,” Mr. Frist said on Fox News Sunday. “Canada right now does have a problem, but they’re acting very quickly to contain it.”

The World Health Organization removed Toronto from the list of SARS-affected areas earlier this month but is reassessing the situation. Canadian authorities expect this latest battle with SARS to prompt the WHO to reissue its advisory.

Toronto’s tourism industry is still struggling to recover from being put on the list in the first place. Travelers have shied away from the city since April, prompting thousands of hotel and restaurant workers to be laid off.

Hoping to attract summer visitors to Toronto from U.S. states along the Ontario border, tourism officials planned to begin a television ad campaign this past weekend. But they put it on hold while the city wrestles with the second wave of SARS cases.

The effect of the disease has even been felt on what was shaping up to be the campaign trail.

Ontario Premier Ernie Eves was widely expected to call an election this week for late June but says the health care crisis is more important than politics.

“I’m not thinking of elections right now,” he said. “I’m thinking of the problems we have on our plate. … I think it’s obviously very important to deal with the latest SARS flare-up.”

Elsewhere in the world, 12 new deaths in Taiwan, along with seven in China and four in Hong Kong, brought the worldwide death toll to at least 715. More than 8,100 people have been infected by severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Yesterday, Taiwan angrily refused offers of help with fighting SARS from rival China, the worst affected, and scolded Beijing for blocking the island’s efforts to join the World Health Organization.

“If the Chinese authorities are really concerned about Taiwanese … they should no longer interfere with Taiwan’s attempts to participate in the WHO or other international organizations,” Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said, adding that China should keep its medicine to focus on its own SARS outbreak.

For decades, Taiwan and China have been locked in a political feud, and SARS has further strained relations between the two, which split amid civil war in 1949.

The newest twist in the feud involves Taiwan’s efforts to join the WHO — a campaign China has blocked by arguing that the democratic island isn’t an independent country and that it should be ruled by Beijing’s communist leadership.

The United States, which is Taiwan’s most important friend, has tried to help the island by sending experts from the CDC. Last week, one of those specialists, Dr. Chesley L. Richards Jr., developed SARS symptoms and was flown back to Atlanta.

Health officials in Georgia said yesterday that Dr. Richards, an infection-control expert, has been classified as the state’s eighth suspected SARS case. CDC spokeswoman Rhonda Smith said Dr. Richards is in good condition and is in isolation.

China stepped up its own public health campaign yesterday, handing out “spit bags” to people in Beijing who can’t resist the habit of spitting in streets and on sidewalks.

Lottery-ticket vendors and volunteers were distributing more than 20,000 of the plastic-lined bags, the Beijing Evening News reported. Authorities also handed out tissue packets to discourage people from another common practice: blowing their noses into the air.

Malaysia tried to avoid an outbreak, quarantining 100 sailors on their ship after a crew member with SARS symptoms died. So far, the country has reported five probable SARS cases, including two deaths.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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