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Officials in China have confirmed that a virus that originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan has been transmitted by human-to-human contact, and that 15 health workers have been infected—a major development for the contagious illness.
The new developments prompted the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Monday to call a meeting for Wednesday to determine whether the outbreak should be declared an international public health emergency.
On Tuesday, China’s National Health Commission said a total of 291 cases had been reported, with 72 new cases in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located. The virus has also spread to at cities across mainland China and to Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand and Japan. It’s now responsible for six deaths.
Taiwan confirmed its first case Tuesday. The territory’s Centres for Disease Control reported that the patient is a 50-year-old woman who works in Wuhan. She was brought to the hospital by airport staff in Taiwan after she was found to exhibit symptoms of the virus upon arrival.
Yuen Kwok-yung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, called on residents of Hong Kong not to go to Wuhan unless absolutely necessary.
“If you really need to, wear a mask and practice good hand hygiene if you go to crowded places or visit a hospital,” he said during a press conference. He also advised those who return back to Hong Kong from Wuhan to wear a mask for 14 days to avoid spreading the virus in case they caught it.
As of Tuesday, Chinese authorities said the virus has been detected in six mainland Chinese cities outside Wuhan. Among the confirmed cases were 13 patients in four cities—Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Zhanjiang and Huizhou—in the southern province of Guangdong. Nine patients have been diagnosed with the virus in Shenzhen, a port city that borders Hong Kong where there have been 99 suspected cases, though none officially confirmed. Two cases have been reported in Shanghai, and five in Beijing.
But some experts are concerned that the actual numbers are far greater. A study by researchers at the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London used population and international travel data to estimate that there were more than 1,700 cases in Wuhan alone as of January 16—a time when Chinese authorities were reporting just 41.
The increase in the number of confirmed cases comes just days before the Chinese New Year holiday, raising fears that the virus could spread further as millions across China travel home to visit their families.
In response to the outbreak, outbound travelers at Wuhan’s Tianhe International Airport are having their temperatures checked before boarding planes, and those displaying fever symptoms are quarantined.
At the Wuhan Railway Station, employees have been told that they would soon start checking travelers’ temperatures, China Daily reported.
Cases of the virus, China Coronavirus have so far been reported in South Korean, Thailand and Japan, sparking concern of a possible regional outbreak. China is the world’s biggest market in outbound tourism, with nearly 150 million visits made by Chinese travellers in 2018.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said Monday the virus would be brought under control. “People’s lives and health should be given top priority and the spread of the outbreak should be resolutely curbed,” state TV quoted Xi as saying.
What do we know about the virus?
Medical experts in China identified the mysterious disease as a novel coronavirus earlier this month. Most coronaviruses result in mild symptoms, including upper-respiratory tract infections like the common cold, according to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Protection (CDC).
But the classification of the disease China Coronavirus puts it in the same family as SARS and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), both of which killed hundreds.
● Time Magazine