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WHO to lift SARS travel ban to Toronto

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GENEVA, Switzerland (CNN) -- The World Health Organization announced Tuesday that it will lift its SARS advisory against nonessential travel to Toronto, Ontario, effective Wednesday.

At a news conference in Geneva, WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland said the situation in Toronto had changed since the advisory was issued last week.

"First of all, the magnitude of probable SARS cases has decreased," Brundtland said. "It has been now 20 days since the last cases of community transmission, and there are no new confirmed export cases out of Toronto or Canada."

Outside Asia, Toronto is the epicenter of the biggest SARS outbreak, with more than 140 cases and 20 deaths reported in the city area, according to WHO.

Concern over safety led WHO to issue the advisory, which led some tourists to cancel planned trips to the area, provoked furor among politicians and was at odds with the recommendation of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.

Last week's advisory against travel to Beijing and China's Shanxi province -- as well as past warnings to Hong Kong and China's Guangdong Province -- remains in effect. Brundtland said that Toronto still had an outbreak of SARS, however, and was classified as an "affected area."

Tuesday's WHO announcement came after Canadian officials, including the health minister of Ontario, where Toronto is located, met with WHO officials to make their case that health care officials in Canada have the SARS outbreak under control.

Toronto will host an international conference on SARS on Wednesday and Thursday. Officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and doctors who have treated the disease are expected to attend.

Also on Tuesday, the CDC's director and Canadian health officials testified before a U.S. Senate committee on updates on the SARS outbreak. (Full story)

Asian summit backs plan

Meanwhile, Asian leaders adopted a six-point plan Tuesday to try and control the outbreak of the deadly respiratory virus.

The leaders of China, Hong Kong and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed to an action plan during a summit in Bangkok, Thailand, aimed at creating regional unity and cooperation in the fight against severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Officials at the summit -- the first high-level international gathering to take place in response to the SARS epidemic -- said they hope the plan will restore some confidence among the public so that people may resume travel in the region.

"Every country must be responsible for the health of their citizens, not allowing their sick people to travel to other parts of the region," Thai Public Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan said.

Included in the pan-Asian measures, according to Reuters news agency, are:

The pre-departure and arrival screening of international travelers;

Establishment of an international emergency SARS hotline;

Exchange of information;

Cooperation on research and training;

Meetings to devise other countermeasures to combat SARS; and

Openness and transparency in dealing with the virus.

Ban on tourists in Tibet

China on Tuesday banned tourists from visiting Tibet, central China and the Chinese countryside to prevent the spread of SARS, the official Xinhua news agency said. WHO has reported no SARS cases in Tibet.

To date, the virus has killed more than 300 people around the world and infected more than 5,000 -- with the majority of cases and infections concentrated in Hong Kong and mainland China.

On Tuesday, China announced nine new deaths from SARS and 202 cases, bringing the death toll to 148 and the total number of cases to just more than 3,300.

Hong Kong said it had 12 new SARS deaths and 15 new infections.

The death toll in Hong Kong has hit 150, but the low number of new SARS cases gives credence to a WHO announcement that infections had peaked there.

Monday's WHO statement was a rare bright spot after weeks of bleak news about SARS. The health body said the outbreak also had peaked in Vietnam, Canada and Singapore -- but not in China, where the virus is believed to have originated in November.

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