Countries began evacuating their citizens Wednesday from the Chinese city hardest-hit by a new virus that has now infected more people in China than were sickened in the country by SARS.
The number of confirmed cases jumped to 5,974, surpassing the 5,327 in mainland China during the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003.
The death toll rose to 132, which is still lower than the 348 people who were killed in China by SARS. Scientists say there are still many critical questions to be answered about the new virus, including just how transmissible and severe it is.
A Japanese flight that brought back evacuees from the city of Wuhan included four passengers with coughs and fevers. Two were diagnosed with pneumonia.
The three men and one woman were taken to a Tokyo hospital in separate ambulances for treatment and further medical checks. Another woman developed nausea at the airport and was also hospitalized.
It wasn’t immediately known whether they were infected with the new type of coronavirus, which first appeared in Wuhan in December. Its symptoms, including cough and fever and in severe cases pneumonia, are similar to many other illnesses.
China’s latest figures added 26 deaths, all but one in Hubei province and its capital, Wuhan. The number of cases rose 1,459 from the previous day, a smaller increase than the 1,771 new cases reported on Monday. More than 50 infections have been confirmed abroad.
The United Arab Emirates, home to long-haul carriers Emirates and Etihad, reported its first cases on Wednesday in members of a family who had come from Wuhan, the state-run news agency reported. It wasn’t immediately clear how many family members were involved.
British Airways announced it was immediately suspending all flights to and from mainland China after the U.K. government warned against unnecessary travel to the country. BA said in a statement Wednesday that “we apologize to customers for the inconvenience, but the safety of our customers and crew is always our priority.” The airline operates daily flights from London’s Heathrow Airport to Shanghai and Beijing.
British health secretary Matt Hancock tweeted that “anyone who returns from Wuhan will be safely isolated for 14 days, with all necessary medical attention.” The measures are a step up from what the country did during the devastating 2014 Ebola outbreak, when returning travelers from West Africa were asked to monitor themselves for symptoms.
Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said the measures are justified for public health reasons.
“Those are the sorts of measures that will protect countries from the introduction of the virus and onward transmission,” he said. “There’s always a balance between the draconian measures of public health and what people might want to do, and obviously it’s regrettable if people who turn out not to have the virus are quarantined unnecessarily.
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