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Canada bans travel visas from West Africa amid signs of progress on ebola

Canada joined Australia in suspending entry visas for people from Ebola-stricken countries in West Africa. The World Health Organization said this week that the rate of infection in Liberia appears to be falling.

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    U.S marines disembark upon their arrival at the Roberts International airport in Monrovia, Liberia, in early October.
    Canada is suspending visa applications for residents and nationals of countries with "widespread and persistent-intense transmission" of the Ebola virus.
    (AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh)
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Canada's Conservative government said it is suspending visa applications for residents and nationals of countries with "widespread and persistent-intense transmission" of the Ebola virus.

With Friday's decision, Canada joined Australia in suspending entry visas for people from Ebola-stricken countries in West Africa in an attempt to keep the deadly disease away.

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. Canada receives very few travelers from those countries, which have no direct flights to Canada.

Canada's announcement comes at a time when there are signs that the corner may have been turned on ebola in West Africa. 

On Friday, a new treatment center was opened in Monrovia, Liberia. The opening of the center, built out of white plastic sheeting with USAID written across it, comes as fewer people are showing up for treatment at various centers. Officials are not sure how to interpret that. Some believe it's a sign that the Ebola outbreak is finally on the wane in Liberia.

"It is heartening to see that we are finally perhaps catching up with that boulder if not in front of it. It was rolling down the hill at a speed that we were never going to catch, we thought, two months ago, but we're starting to make progress," said U.S. Ambassador Deborah Malac.

The World Health Organization said this week that the rate of infection in Liberia appears to be falling but warned that the response effort must be kept up.

A similar visa ban by Australia was slammed Wednesday by Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO's director general, who said closing borders won't stop spread of the Ebola virus.

Canadian Health Minister Rona Ambrose said in a statement the "number one priority is to protect Canadians." Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Alexander said the government would act in the "best interests of Canadians."

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. He later called it "considerably different."

"We have instituted a pause, but there is room for discretion and if we can be assured that someone is not infected with Ebola," Menard said in an email after declining to comment on the phone. He said the government was "doing anything we can to keep Ebola from coming to Canada."

Nancy Caron, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said that "a number of African countries have imposed stricter travel bans as have several other countries around the world. Other countries such as the United States have started to place restrictions on travelers from countries with Ebola outbreaks."

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.

Declining to criticize the move, an Obama administration official said Friday that Canada remains an important partner in the effort to stop Ebola. The official was not authorized to discuss diplomatic relations by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for the United Nations secretary-general, said the world body welcomed Canada's support in fighting the Ebola outbreak but also advocated "against isolating the three most impacted countries and stigmatizing its citizens."

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 treaty "just seems to be disintegrating in this Ebola panic," Fidler said. "And to have countries like Australia and Canada be in the forefront of this is even more disheartening," he said, because they had been supportive of the international treaty meant to prevent panic during such a health crisis.

New Democrat Libby Davies of the Canadian opposition also criticized the visa ban, citing criticism by the World Health Organization and the World Bank and questioning the announcement's timing.

"Sending this announcement on a Friday afternoon only worsens concerns that this policy is a public relations exercise, and irresponsibly ignorant of what health experts have advised," she said.?

The International Health 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 13,500 people have been sickened by the disease, and nearly 5,000 have died, the World Health Organization said Friday. That toll has about 130 fewer cases than the one released by WHO two days ago, mostly because a number of suspected cases in Guinea were determined to not be Ebola, the agency said. 

The hardest hit countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea 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.

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Associated Press reporters Darlene Superville in Washington and Cara Anna at the United Nations contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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