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Toronto and SARS

Toronto has been the city hardest hit by SARS outside of Asia. Yesterday the WHO took a dramatic step, adding Toronto to its list of cities and regions for which it warns against all non-essential travel:

Hoping to slow the spread of SARS, the World Health Organization on Wednesday warned against "all but essential" travel to Toronto and parts of China, including the capital, Beijing -- a move immediately decried by one of Toronto's chief microbiologists as "ridiculous."

The statement from the WHO extends a previous warning that urged people not to travel to the Chinese province of Guangdong and to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

"As a result of ongoing assessments as to the nature of outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Beijing and Shanxi province, China, and in Toronto, Canada, WHO is now recommending, as a measure of precaution, that persons planning to travel to these destinations consider postponing all but essential travel," the group said in a statement issued from Geneva.

The reaction of Toronto's health officials and city leaders was of outrage:

Anne McLellan, federal Health Minister, said Canada takes "very strong exception" to the decision.

"I am just shaking my head here in disbelief," said Dr. Colin D'Cunha, Ontario's commissioner of public health.

"Our team is very disappointed with the WHO's warning. We believe this decision was made without consulting the province. We believe it is an over-reaction."

Others were harsher.

"It's a bunch of bulls---," said Dr. Donald Low, chief microbiologist at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, who has been at the forefront of Canada's SARS battle. "The impact on the city -- you won't be able to take this mark off."

But while Toronto is angry at the WHO for their travel warning, one of Canada's own provincial leaders is considering doing the very same thing:

Alberta Premier Ralph Klein mused yesterday about whether he'd let his government's employees travel to Canada's largest city...

The Alberta Premier said yesterday that he had cancelled a trip to China because of SARS fears. All of his government's employees are now prohibited from travelling to China, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao.

Mr. Klein said the province is also considering whether to impose a similar ban on travel to Toronto.

Personally, I think the reaction of Toronto officials puts them in danger of looking like Chinese officials a week or two ago: in denial about the true nature of the threat they face. A more considered response would be to say something like, "While we disagree with the WHO's assessment of the seriousness of the situation here, we will work with them over the next three weeks to continue the process of containing SARS in Toronto and demonstrating to the world that our city is safe for travelers."

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