Canada pressures U.N. to reconsider its travel advisory

Prime minister asserts Toronto is safe, plans to hold meeting there

April 26, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TORONTO - Canada increased the pressure yesterday to persuade the World Health Organization to reverse its advisory warning travelers to avoid Toronto because of the outbreak of the contagious respiratory disease known as SARS.

"We all believe that the World Health Organization came to the wrong conclusion," said Prime Minister Jean Chretien in a nationally televised news conference yesterday after returning from a week's vacation in the Dominican Republic.

In a gesture intended to express confidence that Toronto was a safe place to visit, Chretien said he was scheduling a Cabinet meeting in Toronto on Tuesday and would spend Monday night at a hotel here. "I will sleep very, very, very well," he said.

Chretien made his remarks after calling the WHO president, Gro Harlem Brundtland, to strongly protest Wednesday's decision, which is causing severe economic aftershocks here in Canada's financial center and largest city.

Canadian officials said the prime minister's conversation with Brundtland was private, but they noted that the two developed a good working relationship when Brundtland was prime minister of Norway in the early and mid-1990s.

There was no indication that Brundtland made any commitments one way or another.

"I don't think there will be a reversal," said Dick Thompson, spokesman for the communicable disease section of the WHO, a United Nations agency. But he added, "We re-evaluate travel information every day and in that sense we will be looking at it again regularly."

The Toronto death toll from severe acute respiratory syndrome rose to 19 yesterday with three more deaths. There have been 257 probable and suspected cases in the metropolitan area, a number that has gone down in recent days.

Canadian health officials, who are suddenly expressing optimism about controlling SARS, point out that new cases have not been reported outside the hospital system in more than a week. The disease, they say, has not broken out into the general community, and it is extremely unlikely for a pedestrian or visitor to become sick with SARS around the city.

But WHO officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they continued to believe that travel to Toronto posed a threat to world health, particularly for developing countries whose health care systems could not manage an outbreak of SARS introduced by someone who had traveled to an infected city.

The officials said the health organization was coming under enormous political pressure from a country with traditionally warm ties to the United Nations. They suggested that a possible reversal could be based on politics and not science.

The prime minister's call to Brundtland came after two days of telephone calls from Cabinet officials and from the Ontario premier, Ernie Eves, who argued that the WHO decision was based on faulty information that did not reflect an improving situation.

Eves said yesterday that Canadian officials would present their case Tuesday and that "there will be a decision to make whether to lift the travel ban on Toronto or not."

The WHO decision was based on determinations that several probable SARS cases in the Philippines, Australia and the United States were linked to people who had traveled to Canada.

Canadian officials question whether many of the illnesses were actually SARS. Even if some were, they say, they do not reflect the current improvement.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not agree with the WHO decision and has not added Toronto to its list of SARS-affected areas that travelers should avoid.

Canada's frustration with the U.N. organization and its gratefulness for U.S. support comes only a few weeks after Ottawa angered the Bush administration by not supporting the war in Iraq because it was not sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council.

"The Canadian predisposition toward multilateral institutions and antipathy to U.S. unilateralism has been briefly put on its head," said Robert A. Pastor, vice president of international affairs at American University and a senior official in the Carter White House, who was visiting a foreign policy conference in Toronto yesterday.

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