Toll in Mystery Canada Illness Reaches 16

A mysterious respiratory illness that has killed 16 people at a Toronto nursing home has stumped health officials and cast another shadow over a city still trying to shed bad publicity from the SARS (search) epidemic.

Health experts insist the illness is winding down and emphasize it has been contained to the Seven Oaks Home for the Aged (search) in the eastern suburbs of Toronto.

"I want to send a message of reassurance that this tragedy is heralding some sort of SARS-like outbreak — it is not," said George Smitherman, health minister for the province of Ontario 34 other patients from the nursing home have been hospitalized with symptoms of the disease, and some may be too elderly or frail to survive.

All the deaths have been among the nursing home's mostly frail and elderly residents, according to Dr. David McKeown, the city's medical officer. The latest victims, reported dead on Wednesday, were three men, aged 84, 75, 89 and three women aged 96, 92 and 85.

In all, 88 people — 70 residents, 13 employees and five visitors to Seven Oaks — have contracted the elusive bug.

Public health officials have so far ruled out avian flu (search), influenza A and B, Legionnaire's disease and SARS, the virus that claimed 44 lives in Canada's largest city in the spring of 2003. An estimated 774 people worldwide died of the illness that year.

The red-brick nursing home in the suburban Scarborough neighborhood was still closed to visitors and family members Thursday. Employees could be seen inside wearing masks, but there did not appear to be any sense of panic. The neighborhood has several homes for senior citizens as well as hospitals and medical clinics.

"I'm nervous about it; I think just about everybody in the building is," said Trixie Legge, whose sister-in-law is at Seven Oaks, which reported the first case on Sept. 25.

Legge said her brother had not been allowed to visit his wife but had been told she was well. Legge, 77, who suffers from lung disease, lives in the neighboring Thomas J. Shoniker apartment complex for senior citizens.

"They've never had anything like it. We just want to know what it is. But for now, we don't want no part of that over there; we're keeping away from everything," Legge said, nodding toward the nursing home and the local coffee shop where she dines twice a day.

Another resident in the building, Margaret Paterson, said she's concerned health officials may be keeping something from the public. "Like that avian flu, half the people who get that are dying, so we need to know what it is over there," she said.

Her friend, Tanya Cussion, however, said she trusted medical officials to take precautions to protect the public and blamed the media for stirring up fears.

"You're scaring all of us," she said. "I'm not in the least bit concerned. I'm a fatalist. If it happens, it will happen, and it would be a pleasant way to go."