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Toronto suspects 33 SARS cases, quarantines 500

Possible infections traced to three city hospitals

Key members of the SARS containment team meet in Toronto, where 33 possible cases are suspected.
Key members of the SARS containment team meet in Toronto, where 33 possible cases are suspected.

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TORONTO, Ontario (CNN) -- Public health officials in Toronto have identified 33 suspected SARS cases and quarantined another 500 people as they try to quash the disease's spread, officials said Saturday.

Those numbers represent a jump in the number of possible cases since Friday, when just 25 were reported.

"We are very keen to wrestle this one down to the ground," said Dr. Colin D'Cunha, Ontario's commissioner for public health.

The cases can be traced through three Toronto-area hospitals. Close contact among health care workers and patients is believed to foster the disease's spread.

As Canada is investigating a surge of new possible SARS cases, Hong Kong marked its first day with no new cases reported. Officials there said two more people have died from severe acute respiratory syndrome, though.

The World Health Organization lifted an advisory against travel to Hong Kong and the southern province of Guangdong on Friday, saying SARS had been contained in the former epicenters of the epidemic. (Full story)

Canada is the only country outside Asia where people have died from the flu-like virus. In the Toronto area, 24 are known to have died from SARS.

Possible transmission between patients, staffers

Six new suspected cases came from St. John's Hospital, among them, one person who was transferred from St. John's to the neurosurgery unit at St. Michael's Hospital this month, D'Cunha said. Another 27 cases involve North York General.

The neurosurgery unit at St. Michael's is closed to new admissions, he said, and staff members there are in isolation. St. John's was closed as a precautionary measure Friday to admissions, discharges, transfers and visitors. North York is not accepting admissions or volunteers, and the hospital has put limits on visitors, according to its Web site.

D'Cunha urged anyone who might have been to either St. John's or North York in the past 10 days -- the typical incubation period for SARS -- to stay isolated at home and call public health officials immediately, regardless of whether they are experiencing symptoms of the disease.

Although all the suspected cases are being treated as if they are SARS, it won't be known until lab results come back Tuesday whether the disease is to blame.

The news is a blow to Canada, which thought it had its outbreak until control. The WHO removed Toronto from its list of SARS-affected areas last week.

In general, SARS begins with a fever of at least 100.4 Fahrenheit degrees [38 degrees Celsius]. Other possible symptoms include headache, an overall feeling of discomfort, body aches and mild respiratory problems, according to the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After two to seven days, SARS patients might develop a dry cough and have trouble breathing, the CDC says.

In both probable and suspect cases, the patients have respiratory symptoms and fever. A case is deemed probable if the patient also has lung illness confirmed by an X-ray.

Despite his warnings, D'Cunha tried to allay any fears among the wider population.

This continues to be a disease acquired amidst particularly health care workers in health care facilities, and in close, direct contact of known cases of SARS," he said. "This is not a disease out there in the general community."

Seven of the 33 suspected cases in the Toronto area involve health care workers, said Dr. Don Low, a microbiologist helping with the investigation. He said he could not say how many of the rest are patients or hospital visitors.

Toronto Public Health has placed about 500 people in quarantine to try to control the disease's spread, said Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Toronto's associate medical officer of health.

Isolation involves people who have SARS symptoms; quarantine applies to people without any symptoms who might have had contact with someone who has SARS.

Yaffe said she knows there are others in the community who have had contact with a SARS case, and she urged them to "self-identify and self-isolate" until health officials can assess their risk of having caught the disease.

Authorities are shoring up safeguards at Canada's borders, and airports in Toronto and Vancouver have begun testing new temperature scanners to try to identify possible SARS carriers.

Hong Kong bans civet imports

While Hong Kong cheered its removal from the travel warning list, authorities there have urged residents to remain vigilant.

It is believed the epidemic originated in Guangdong province, and researchers said Friday that they might have traced the disease to civet cats, considered a delicacy by some Chinese. (Full story)

Hong Kong said Saturday that it was suspending the import of civet meat.

The WHO still advises against nonessential travel to Beijing and four other Chinese regions, as well as to Taiwan.

Taiwan reported 10 new cases Saturday, a much lower rise than during the previous few days. On Thursday, it counted 65 new infections.

So far 60 people have died from SARS in Taiwan, the third-hardest hit area after China and Hong Kong. On Saturday it reported no deaths.

Highlighting the seriousness of the situation, a member of a U.S. team assessing SARS control procedures in Taiwan has developed symptoms of the disease. (Full story)

China announced five more deaths Saturday. In Beijing, the hardest-hit region in the world, a city spokesman said new cases there were on a "notable downward trend," though the Health Ministry later announced a slight uptick in numbers of infections in the city.

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