By: Sabrina Fried
I live just ten minutes away from one of the hospitals in the Toronto area that has been closed due to a feared SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) contamination. The public library nearby where I do a great deal of my research work has posted notices requesting that patrons exhibiting SARS symptoms not enter the building. Just last week, over a hundred workers at the nearby offices of Hewlett-Packard of Canada were quarantined with the fear that they might have been exposed to SARS after a quarantined worker returned to work a day too early. With all this happening literally on my doorstep, you might think I'm scared witless about contracting SARS. I'm not. I do not walk around wearing a mask and latex gloves, I have not been ordered to quarantine, and I am not running to the nearby SARS clinic with every single sniffle or cough. I am still shopping in the local malls, and yes, I still eat at Chinese food restaurants, how could I not with an abundance of excellent restaurants nearby?
As someone who lives full time in the Toronto area, let me say this as clearly as I can: Toronto is safe now and Toronto will still be safe in August when Worldcon arrives.
You wouldn't know it from watching the national and international media coverage of the city. Coverage of the Toronto outbreak has been lumped in with other hot zones such as Hong Kong, and China, where, depending on whose numbers you trust, hundreds have died and thousands are ill with SARS. The uncritical eye watching the media would think that the Black Death has returned, and body-collectors are running around Toronto with wheelbarrows like something out of a Monty Python sketch, minus the humour.
The truth is this: As of the day I finished this article, the entire province of Ontario, home to well over eleven million people, had logged slightly over 300 suspected or probable cases of SARS. According to the definition being used by Health Canada, a Suspected SARS case is one where the patient has developed a fever and other symptoms of SARS after returning from a SARS hot zone or being in close contact with a Probable SARS patient. Suspected SARS patients might have SARS, or they might have one of the other related illnesses that has similar symptoms. Suspected SARS cases comprise nearly half of the cases being treated in Ontario today. A Probable SARS case is one where the patient has developed SARS symptoms, and has become severely ill with symptoms that do not fit the criteria of any of the other related illnesses. Already, fully a third of the suspected and/or probable SARS patients in Ontario have been treated, given a clean bill of health (for SARS anyway), and released from hospital. Most of the remaining patients are responding well to medical care. The travel advisories, health emergencies, hospital closures, and quarantines that have occurred are the result of a plan by the Toronto and Ontario departments of health to prevent SARS from spreading any farther. They are as much preventative measures as they are reactions to the outbreak. As with the outbreak in many other parts of the world, the fear of SARS has proven much, much more contagious than the illness itself. It is true that thirteen people - all of them traced back one way or another to Toronto's original SARS case - have succumbed to SARS, but all but one of these patients was already in poor health, with chronic or terminal illnesses that resulted in their bodies having a weakened immune system, when they contracted SARS.
So what does SARS mean to Worldcon? Nothing, really. The convention is still a go, and everything is business as usual. The number of new SARS cases is not increasing as quickly as it was earlier in March and April. Only a handful of the people quarantined will actually develop SARS. In fact, the only reason there has been a quarantine scare in Toronto at all is because irresponsible people who are at a genuine risk of SARS exposure have been sneaking out of isolation too early, thus forcing health officials to quarantine others just to be on the safe side.
People living in or travelling through Toronto are being reminded to maintain good health and good hygiene practices. Even something as simple as washing your hands on a regular basis - good, vigorous hand washing with hot, soapy water for at least 20 seconds - can go a long way towards reducing your exposure to various germs. Maintaining good health allows your body's immune system to fight off SARS and other viruses naturally. If SARS cases in Toronto continue to decline the way they have until now since the original outbreak, then SARS will effectively be a non-issue by the time the summer rolls around. As it stands right now, you have a better chance of catching the common cold, or being hit by a car during your five days in Toronto than you do getting SARS. Travel advisories and passenger screening for SARS symptoms at the Customs stations in Toronto's Pearson International Airport will likely add an extra hour or so to the amount of time it takes you to arrive in Toronto, but you can leave the containment suit at home.
For more information on SARS in Toronto visit the websites below. Most are being updated daily or as often as new information becomes available:
Health Canada's SARS Information
Government of Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care SARS Update: http://www.health.gov.on.ca/english/public/updates/archives/hu_03/hu_sars.html
Toronto Public Health SARS Information Page: (Information included in 7 languages): http://www.toronto.ca/health/sars
World Health Organization Information on
Last updated: 21 April 2003
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