Suzanne Charest, Canadian Red Cross
Since Canada’s most-populated province of Ontario declared a state of emergency related to an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) on March 26, Red Cross volunteers, together with counterparts from St John Ambulance, have been providing an essential service to those in quarantine. Nearly 380 Red Cross volunteers have been dropping off food parcels, surgical masks, thermometers and information on this strange new illness that has travelled continents, to 2,600 households living in voluntary isolation in their homes and unable to go about their daily business, including buying food.
Health officials in Ontario’s capital, Toronto, have isolated people suspected of having SARS, as well as doctors, nurses and other patients who may have come into contact with them. As of April 10, Health Canada had received reports of 97 probable cases of SARS and 10 deaths. Of these, Ontario has 94 cases, with the remaining cases in British Columbia. Figures which place Canada just behind China and Hong Kong as the country worst affected by this atypical pneumonia.
Providing assistance to those who may have SARS is not easy as the syndrome is mainly transmitted through body contact and body fluids.
“When we received the call from the Ontario Ministry of Health requesting our assistance, we quickly assessed the risk to our volunteers,” said Steve Armstrong, Manager of Disaster Services, Canadian Red Cross in Ontario. “When it was deemed safe, we established strict protocols for the delivery of much-needed items to the homes of quarantined people.”
The Canadian Red Cross team participated in special training sessions and two weeks ago, hit the streets of the Greater Toronto Area, which has a population of 4.6 million people. Assistance has also been provided in other areas, including the Canadian capital, Ottawa.
Kai Tao has volunteered with the Canadian Red Cross for more than 10 years—helping out with programmes following floods in China and assistance to the more than 4,000 Kosovar refugees who came to Canada in 1999. Kai worked every evening for a week, delivering the parcels to the homes of those in quarantine.
“The Red Cross fits ideally to this type of humanitarian response,” says Kai Tao. “Although dealing with a health crisis such as this is not a typical disaster response operation for us, we are well trained and our skills our transferable. When the Ministry of Health called, we were able to respond rapidly to meet the ongoing needs related to the SARS crisis. Our volunteers are on standby and prepared to go with only a few hours notice.”
Another Red Cross volunteer, Ella Davidson, who has visited about 20 homes every day for the past two weeks, says many of the people quarantined by SARS feel extremely isolated and shunned. “Although we aren’t in direct contact with the people we assist, we do see them waving out of the windows and welcoming our help.”
What has been heartwarming is the community spirit that has come into play.
“One of the unique aspects of this crisis is that we have a truly local response—with many of our volunteers actually helping their neighbours,” said Geoff Moon, team leader, Canadian Red Cross Emergency Operations Centre. It’s in keeping with the Red Cross and Red Crescent spirit of volunteering – people within communities helping each each at times of need. And as in Ontario, teams of Red Cross volunteers are on standby in Canada’s nine other provinces.
The death toll around the world from SARS has now risen to 111 and the number of reported cases to more than 2,780 in 17 countries. China, with nearly 1,300 cases, is the worst affected country, with a total so far of 57 deaths. Hong Kong, which ranks below China in the SARS outbreak, has a caseload of nearly 1,000 people and 28 deaths. The Hong Kong Red Cross, which has begun a distribution of hygiene kits and a SARS prevention education campaign, is also providing logistical support by shopping for food for families who have been quarantined in camps. The Red Cross’s Blood Transfusion service is also calling for healthy and fit people to continue donating blood while the organization as a whole is working closely with community groups in the SARS response.
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Information Bulletin - Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
Canadian Red Cross
WHO - SARS Updates