TORONTO — Canada has joined Australia in suspending entry visas for people from Ebola-stricken countries in West Africa in an attempt to keep the deadly disease away.
The Canadian government said Friday it is suspending visa applications for residents and nationals of countries with "widespread and persistent-intense transmission" of Ebola virus disease.
Canada has not yet had a case of Ebola. Canadians, including health-care workers, in West Africa will be permitted to travel back to Canada, the government said.
The countries most severely hit by the worst Ebola outbreak ever are Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
A similar move by Australia was slammed Wednesday by Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, who said closing borders will not stop spread of the Ebola virus.
Canadian Health Minister Rona Ambrose said in a statement the "number one priority is to protect Canadians" and Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Alexander said the government would act in the "best interests of Canadians."
"The precautionary measures announced today build on actions we have taken to protect the health and safety of Canadians here at home. Our government continues to monitor the situation in West Africa very closely," Alexander said in a statement.
Kevin Menard, a spokesman for Alexander, said the move is similar to but a bit less restrictive than the one the Australian government announced this week.
The Canadian government said the measure does not apply to anyone who already has a visa. Cases will also be considered on a case by case basis.
"Discretion will remain for the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration to grant entry on a case-by-case basis in exceptional cases where travel is essential and in Canada's interest. Apart from those instances, temporary resident applications already in process that are affected by these new measures will be returned to the applicants," read the statement, headlined: "Protecting the Health and Safety of Canadians."
The government said Canadian citizens or foreign nationals with a visa and foreign nationals who do not require visas will continue to be screened at ports of entry in Canada and will be subject to appropriate health screening.
David Fidler, an international law professor at Indiana University, said the moves by Canada and Australia place both countries in violation of the International Health Regulations, a 2005 World Health Organization treaty to which both are signatories. The regulations are designed to help the world fight infectious disease outbreaks that have the potential for international spread. They were revised and strengthened in the wake of the 2003 SARS outbreak.
The 2003 outbreak in Asia and Canada of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, led the World Health Organization to issue travel advisories directing people around the world to avoid places battling severe outbreaks. Ontario's then health minister, Tony Clement — now a federal cabinet minister— was among those incensed by the WHO's move. Clement led a delegation to Geneva to successfully demand the WHO rescind the travel advisory against Toronto.
More than 13,700 people have been sickened by Ebola, and nearly 5,000 have died. The outbreak has hit Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea hardest and all three countries have resorted to extraordinary measures to combat it.
Canada has donated 800 vials of an experimental Ebola vaccine to WHO.
The vaccine, developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada and known as VSV-EBOV, has been sent to the U.S. Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland for testing on healthy volunteers, with preliminary results about its safety expected by December. The next stage would be to test it more broadly, including among those directly handling Ebola cases in West Africa.