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WHO Warns Against Travel to Toronto, Beijing Due to SARS

BY Admin  April 23, 2003 at 1:30 PM EST

In its advisory, the WHO said those planning to journey to any of the three areas should “consider postponing all but essential travel.” The move came “as a result of ongoing assessments as to the nature of outbreaks” of the virus, the WHO said in a statement.

David Heymann, the WHO’s director of communicable diseases, said the travel recommendation will remain in effect for three weeks, twice the disease’s reported maximum incubation period.

“These areas now have quite a high magnitude of disease, a great risk of transmission locally — outside of the usual health workers — and also they’ve been exporting cases to other countries,” Heymann told reporters.

However, Dr. Donald Low, chief microbiologist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, said he thought the warning was unnecessary.

“This is really inappropriate and I don’t know how they came to that conclusion,” Low told Toronto radio station 680 News on Wednesday. “The fact we have not seen any further secondary cases over the last two weeks tells us it has been contained … no further dissemination — therefore the community is not at risk.”

Officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have traveled to Toronto to help authorities try to contain the disease. The CDC on Tuesday warned travelers to avoid “settings where SARS is most likely to be transmitted, such as health care facilities caring for SARS patients.”

“SARS transmission in Toronto has been limited to a small number of hospitals, households, and specific community settings,” the CDC said in a statement.

WHO spokesman Dick Thompson defended the organization’s warning.

“The reason that the recommendation was put in place was because of the exportation of cases, transmission outside the hospital setting and … the large number of cases,” Thompson told The Canadian Press. “We realize there is an impact on the community, but this is a temporary recommendation. It will be reviewed in three weeks.”

Heymann said the warning comes in addition to earlier cautions against travel to Hong Kong and China’s neighboring Guangdong Province.

In Beijing, Chinese authorities ordered the city’s nearly 2 million elementary and secondary school students to stay home from school in an attempt to stem the spread of the disease. A school official said the closure will begin Thursday and last for two weeks, through what would have been the May Day school holiday, the Associated Press reported.

Earlier this week, China called off its week-long May Day vacation period in another attempt to slow SARS’s spread. According to the WHO, China has reported 2001 SARS cases and 92 deaths from the disease.

Heymann said health experts were still analyzing situation in the former British colony of Hong Kong, where SARS has sickened 1,434 people and killed 99, according to the WHO’s April 22 statistics. The disease has taken a particularly virulent hold in the city’s Amoy Gardens apartment complex, where more than 300 residents have reportedly been sickened and 14 have died.

“The problem with Hong Kong is they still have this non-clear means of transmission and they still have so many cases that it would make it hard for them to come off the list, even if their exportation risks were minimal,” Heymann said.

According to the WHO, 38 probable cases of SARS have been reported in the United States, but no U.S. deaths have been associated with the disease.