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Thousands Quarantined As Toronto Once Again Tackles SARS

The number of people with SARS in the latest outbreak in Canada’s largest city also jumped from 13 to 33 on Thursday when health officials broadened their definition of what constitutes a probable case. The change came after the World Health Organization on Wednesday urged Canada to expand its definition of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

The Health Canada Web site defined a probable case as showing a severe progressive respiratory ailment. The WHO’s definition only requires that a respiratory illness be visible on X-rays.

Health officials said the increased figure for new probable SARS cases was expected because of the altered definition.

“We’re not seeing large number of cases coming into the system each day, ” said Dr. James Young, the Ontario commissioner of public safety.

The new cluster of cases in Canada was a blow to a health care system that appeared to have contained an initial SARS outbreak in March and April.

In response to the new cases, health authorities re-imposed strict controls on Toronto-area hospitals — closing those where the new cases were found to new patients and limiting access to emergency rooms in all others.

Elsewhere, Taiwan reported its lowest daily number of new SARS cases in three weeks Friday, bolstering officials’ view that the illness was fading on the island, ranked No. 3 in the world in deaths and infections.

Health chief Chen Chien-jen reported seven new cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome and said no medical workers have caught the virus in the past 10 days in hospitals — the primary source of past infections.

“It’s very obvious that our new cases have been gradually dwindling since May 13. Everyone is working hard,” he said.

Friday’s low number came one day after Taiwan reported 50 new infections, the biggest increase in nearly a week. But officials said the spike was not caused by a new outbreak because 40 of the cases were patients who had reported SARS symptoms over the past two weeks and had their cases upgraded.

Singapore received good news when its incoming health minister said Friday that the World Health Organization will declare the island’s outbreak under control as soon as Saturday. WHO officials still warned Singaporeans to stay vigilant to avoid a Toronto-style relapse.

“Singapore will be removed from the list as of midnight Singapore time today,” the health ministry quoted WHO Executive Director David Heymann as saying in an e-mail.

“It is a recognition of the comprehensive and rigorous measures that have been put in place in Singapore,” Singapore’s health ministry said in a statement.

Meanwhile, a top Chinese health official denied claims that Beijing tried to hide the seriousness of the SARS virus, saying Friday that the government warned about SARS as early as February and early efforts to fight it were slowed by poor information.

Gao Qiang, the executive deputy health minister, appeared before reporters with a copy of the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily, which on February 12 reported on an atypical pneumonia that had killed five people in Guangdong province and infected 305.

The symptoms were similar to what now is known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, including fever, dry cough and chills, Gao said. The World Health Organization believes that SARS originated in Guangdong.

Gao’s comments were the highest-level response yet to accusations that communist officials tried to cover up the extent of the illness.

“The first time China publicized information about this, the SARS problem had not come to any other country,” Gao said, referring to the People’s Daily report. “Such publicity was first a warning for China itself and also a warning for the rest of the world.”

The short report on the newspaper’s second page assured readers that “people should not panic” if good prevention measures are taken, including frequent disinfection, good ventilation and avoiding crowded public places.

“It is just that because of a lack of an effective information collection system, it was difficult for us to lay our hands on the exact figures,” Gao said.

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