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SARS Hurts Toronto
Tourism, but City Said Safe
Excerpt by Franco Pingue, Reuters Health

The mysterious respiratory infection SARS has killed a seventh person in Toronto, Canada's biggest city, but health officials insisted on Thursday the city is safe to visit even though a convention of medical specialists set to start here this week has been canceled.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome, known as SARS, has sent thousands into quarantine and put a strain on the country's health-care system, especially in Ontario, where most of the cases and all of the deaths have occurred.

The outbreak spurred the American Association for Cancer Research to pull the plug this week on a five-day convention of 16,000 people that was scheduled to start in Toronto on April 5.

The association said its members, especially those with clinical-care responsibilities, wanted to minimize the risk of spreading SARS among their patients, especially those whose immune systems are already compromised from their fight with cancer.

"It's a great regret to hear large conferences that have been planned for years in advance have unfortunately had to cancel," said Sheela Basrur, Toronto's medical officer of health.

"And it's not because of a public health risk but because of a perception on the part of the delegates, or their home institutions, that Toronto was an unsafe place to come to. Nothing can be further from the truth."

In a sign that SARS fears may be easing somewhat, Ontario health officials said hospitals outside Toronto and its surrounding area could reinstate all surgical services and outpatient clinics, while maintaining SARS screening and limited visitor access.

Toronto officials said the city's tourist losses resulting from the SARS scare could reach C$20 million ($13 million).

"Combined with the war in Iraq and the slowing economy, SARS is just devastating to the industry," said Nick Vesely of the Greater Toronto Hotel Association. "Thousands of jobs are at stake as are millions of dollars in revenues and taxes."

Canadian public health officials insist SARS carries a very low risk to the general population and that wearing a surgical mask in public is not necessary.

Such masks have been in demand since the disease first surfaced in Toronto in mid-March. But experts say protection is only required for people in health-care facilities and those in quarantine who need to isolate themselves from family members.

"There is no medical reason for people to mask in public and we are recommending against that," said James Young, Ontario's commissioner of public safety. "We unfortunately do not have unlimited supplies of masks and it's necessary for us to use this supply in a wise and prudent way."

SARS has infected almost 2,300 people worldwide and prompted the World Health Organization to warn travelers to avoid Hong Kong and China's southern Guangdong province -- where the disease is believed to have originated in November.

The Canadian government put the number of probable or suspected SARS cases in the country at 178 on Thursday, including 146 in Ontario. All the cases have occurred in people who have traveled to Asia or who have had contact with people infected with SARS in a home or health-care facility.

Symptoms of SARS, which is believed to be spread via water droplets through sneezing and coughing, include high fever, coughing and breathing difficulties.


Reference Source 89

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