The devastation the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak is wreaking on convention and tradeshow business in Hong Kong, China, Singapore, and other Asian nations is, like the disease itself, starting to spread to North America. Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not yet issued a specific travel advisory for Canada as it has for mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Hanoi, Vietnam, the American Association for Cancer Research on April 2 made the hard decision to pull the plug on its annual meeting this week in Toronto due to SARS concerns. Approximately 16,000 cancer specialists were expected to attend the event at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre April 5 through 9.

"We were hearing from institutions like Memorial Sloan-Kettering, which was recommending that their clinicians not attend. It told clinicians that if they did attend, they’d be restricted from patient care for 10 days to two weeks. That’s what we were up against," says Warren Froelich, Philadelphia-based AACR’s director of communications.

"This was a very, very difficult decision for this organization to make," adds Froelich. "This meeting is the one opportunity cancer researchers from all over the world have to discuss the latest information and translate the latest clinical findings." Still, he says, "member reaction has been overwhelmingly supportive."

While Froelich says it’s too early to talk about where and when the meeting will be rescheduled, the meeting will go on before the year’s end. "We’re in discussions right now to decide what we can do to pick up the pieces," he says. AACR will be informing members about refunds and other updates on its Web site, www.aacr.org, and through e-mail blasts.

In the meantime, the abstracts have already been made public on AACR’s Web site. "We also will be releasing the press releases we intended to circulate at the meeting so the public can find out the latest information, particularly the stories that have some consumer impact," says Froelich.

In addition to affecting cancer researchers and the general public, the cancellation is a blow to the city of Toronto. "Even though the risk here is very low, the nature of this group requires them to have zero tolerance," says Bruce MacMillan, president and CEO of Tourism Toronto, adding that he respects the reasons behind the decision. "Ironically, it wasn’t that attendees were worried about their health; they were worried about the health of the patients they care for, whose immune systems are weakened from their battles with cancer. Of course, we understand that."

He also said that "We have dates for them to rebook in mid-July, and they’re considering that proposal." His organization also has contacted planners from the major organizations coming to the city over the next several months. "They’re all committed," he says.

No information was available at press time on what types of cancellation fees, attrition penalties, or other financial repercussions AACR may be facing due to the meeting cancellation.