A fourth death was reported for a new virus that originated in central China and is sickening medical workers, heightening the risk that the SARS-like illness will spread more widely as millions of people prepare to travel for the Lunar New Year holiday.
The World Health Organization confirmed that the new pathogen is being transmitted among humans, and not just from animals to humans as was originally hoped. Fifteen medical professionals have been affected, with one critically ill, according to a report from state news agency Xinhua.
That puts the virus in a category similar to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which killed almost 800 people 17 years ago. That ailment also represented a high risk to health-care workers.
“The risk from this virus causing pandemonium has increased because it is spreading from different countries, and we are now seeing that it can be more easily transmitted from person to person,” said Sanjaya Senanayake, associate professor of medicine at the Australian National University. In comparison with SARS, he said, “the one good factor, I guess, at the moment seems to be the low mortality rate.”
Health officials in Wuhan, the central Chinese city at the center of the outbreak, confirmed a fourth death. An 89-year-old male, who had a history of hypertension, diabetes and coronary heart disease, was hospitalized on Jan. 18 and died the following day.
Wuhan now has almost 200 confirmed cases. Infections were also reported in Beijing and the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. Across the region, cases have been reported in South Korea, Thailand and Japan — all related to travel from Wuhan.
The number of cases in China surged over the weekend as health authorities worldwide increased testing for the virus, which includes symptoms like fever and coughing. With the Lunar New Year just days away — a holiday season during which the nation’s citizens rack up 3 billion trips across the country to reunite with family — the spread of the virus could intensify.
China’s health commission has decided to include the coronavirus in the Class B infectious diseases category, which includes SARS, while taking preventive steps typically used for the most-serious ailments, such as cholera and plague, according to a notice posted on the website late Monday.
Other countries are on alert, stepping up screening of incoming travelers. International airports in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco started screening from late Friday, joining cities in Asia that implemented surveillance measure days after the outbreak was reported on Dec. 31.
“From a public health point of view, both at a national and international level, you have to assume the worst case scenario – so the SARS scenario – where you had cases going from Hong Kong to all over the world,” said Senanayake.
The WHO convened a meeting of its emergency committee for Jan. 22 in Geneva, according to an emailed statement. Members will discuss “whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, and what recommendations should be made to manage it.”
— With assistance by Kelly Li
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