Deaths from China’s new flu-like virus rose to 17 on Wednesday, with more than 540 cases confirmed, prompting Wuhan — the city at the center of the outbreak — to close transportation networks and urge citizens not to leave as fears rose of the contagion spreading, Reuters reports.
As it seeks to stop the spread of the virus, the Wuhan government said it will close all urban transport networks and suspend outgoing flights from the city as of 10 am local time on Thursday, the report said, citing Chinese state media.
Authorities added that citizens should not leave the city unless there are special circumstances.
The measure is intended to “effectively cut off the transmission of the virus, resolutely curb the spread of the epidemic, and ensure the health and safety of the people,” state media cited Wuhan’s virus task-force as saying.
The previously unknown coronavirus strain is believed to have emerged from illegally traded wildlife at an animal market in Wuhan. Cases have been detected as far away as the United States.
Contrasting with its secrecy over the 2002-03 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people, China’s government has this time given regular updates to try to avoid panic as millions travel for the Lunar New Year.
After a meeting at its Geneva headquarters on Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it will decide on Thursday whether to declare the outbreak a global health emergency, which would step up the international response.
If it does so, it will be the sixth international public health emergency to be declared in the last decade.
“This is an evolving and complex situation,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Wuhan’s move was praised by Ghebreyesus as a “very strong” measure that could minimize the risk of contagion.
With more than 11 million people, Wuhan is central China’s main industrial and commercial center, home to the country’s largest inland port and gateway to its Three Gorges hydroelectric dam.
The latest death toll in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, rose to 17 by midday on Wednesday, state television quoted the provincial government as saying.
However, the virus has already spread beyond the city to population centers including Beijing, Shanghai, Macau and Hong Kong.
The official China Daily newspaper said 544 cases had now been confirmed in the country. Thailand has confirmed four cases, while the United States, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have each reported one.
Britain advised its citizens against all but essential travel to Wuhan.
Many Chinese were canceling trips, buying face masks, avoiding public places such as cinemas and shopping centers.
China’s National Health Commission Vice Minister Li Bin said the virus, which can cause pneumonia and has no effective vaccine, was being spread via breathing. Symptoms include fever, coughing and difficulty breathing.
The WHO’s head of emergencies program, Mike Ryan, said the priority is to find the roots of how the virus was passing between people.
The European Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) said in a risk assessment that further global spread of the virus is likely.
“The likelihood of case importation is highest in countries with the greatest volume of people traveling to and from Wuhan,” the ECDC’s director Andrea Ammon said in a statement.
Airports globally stepped up screening from China.
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