SARS kills Toronto Jewish couple

TORONTO — An elderly Jewish couple have died of severe acute respiratory syndrome, also known as SARS, in Toronto, according to Deborah Pakis, a student at the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Veterinary Medicine in Rehovot who returned this week from the Canadian city.

Pakis said that the man, who had not travelled to Asia, was hospitalized for a heart condition in the same room as a SARS patient and apparently contracted it from him; the wife was infected by her husband and died as well.

Pakis said that "Toronto Jews are all talking about the epidemic," and that those who attended synagogue during Passover were advised not to greet each other with kisses or even to shake hands. She visited her family there during a 10-day stay.

But Pakis, who is "glad to be back in Israel," said she would not fear making another visit to Toronto despite the SARS epidemic, especially as she spent her time in the suburbs and not in the city itself, where most of the cases were reported. In addition, most of those who took ill and died were elderly and with chronic diseases.

Nevertheless, there is still much concern, she said. "Some 500 Filipino Catholics went to a funeral that a SARS patient attended, and all of them were afraid they were exposed." She added that students at the University of Toronto Medical School were instructed not to go to hospitals for their clinical studies.

Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman was quoted as saying: "I have never been so angry in my whole life. If it's safe to live in Toronto, it's safe to come to Toronto. This isn't a city in the grips of fear and panic."

The Interior Ministry in Jerusalem announced Thursday it is refusing entry to foreign workers from Hong Kong, Hanoi and parts of China.

The ministry said its ban on foreign workers would include those who have already received work permits but have not yet arrived in Israel.

Israel's health authorities advised Israelis not to make unnecessary trips to Toronto until further notice because of the SARS outbreak, as they previously did regarding Hong Kong, Beijing, Guangdong Province and Shanxi Province in China, Singapore and Vietnam.

In addition, tourists from Toronto who arrive in Israel are required to fill out questionnaires to inform the authorities where they will be during their stay.

Anyone who volunteers to donate blood in Israel and who spent time in the infected areas, including Toronto, will be barred from doing so for 14 days, and only if the two weeks pass uneventfully will they be allowed to give blood, the ministry said.

Meanwhile, Canadian Health Minister Anne McLellan issued a statement on Thursday that came out against the World Health Organization's advisory not to visit Toronto if the trip is not urgent.

McLellan said that the Canadian government "does not support [this] position… and has clearly made it views known… We do not think it is appropriate based on our understanding of the circumstances on the ground, and we are going to work very strenuously with the WHO to get this travel advisory issue clarified."

McLellan said she was going to visit Toronto on Monday as a demonstrative statement that the city "is a safe place to visit." She noted that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta supports the Canadian government's position that Toronto is safe. "SARS transmission in Toronto has been limited to a small number of hospitals, households and specific community settings," the CDC said.

As of Thursday, more than 3,800 cases of SARS and more than 200 deaths had been reported in 26 countries, with a vast majority of cases and deaths in mainland China and Hong Kong. The U.S. has had only 39 cases of infection. Toronto has had 16 deaths out of 136 cases of probable infection.