Health chiefs remove Singapore from list of Sars-affected countries

The World Health Organisation removed Singapore yesterday from its list of "Sars-affected" areas, giving an unexpected economic and tourism boost to the small southeastern Asian country.

In China, meanwhile, a senior government official denied that the Chinese government had attempted to cover up the numbers of cases in the country. He insisted that the delay in spelling out the full extent of the disease in Beijing was the fault of an inadequate health system.

There was anxiety about the potential for further cases of Sars in Canada after health authorities placed a woman in Ottawa under observation for possible symptoms. Already, there are as many as 7,000 people under quarantine in Canada, including all 2,000 students at a school in Toronto.

Singapore was removed from the WHO list because it had been 20 days since any locally-acquired case was identified there. Sars has infected 206 people in Singapore and killed 31.

An unusually defensive government in China was forthright in denying allegations of a cover-up in the Sars crisis. The disease surfaced first in China, which has remained the epicentre of the crisis as Sars has spread around the world to as many as 31 different countries. "Infectious diseases are impossible to cover up," said Gao Qiang, China's deputy health minister. "You may be able to cover up figures, but you can never cover up viruses. The Chinese government did not conceal the truth."

The solitary suspected case in Ottawa, involving a nurse, pales in comparison all those now under control in Toronto. But it was the possibility that Sars might have spread outside Canada's largest city that was of paramount concern. Toronto was put back on the list of affected locations by the WHO earlier in the week. The city is anxious to pre-empt any step by the world body to re-issue a travel warning for the city.

So far, 29 people have died from the disease in Toronto. When the WHO warned travellers against travelling to Toronto several weeks ago - a move it quickly reversed under pressure from the Canadian government - the impact on the city was disastrous, with multiple hotel and convention cancellations.

Seventy thousand tickets were sold in three hours on Thursday for a concert in Toronto featuring Sarah McLachlan, Avril Lavigne, Sum 41, Our Lady Peace, and Barenaked Ladies. The event on 21 June was conceived as a way of helping the city's tourism and economic problems after the Sars epidemic.

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