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Wuhan urges people to stay away in bid to contain virus

In bid to contain virus, Chinese city cancels major Chinese New Year events, urges residents not to leave city

BEIJING: Officials in Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the fight against a mystery virus outbreak, have told people to stay away, cancelling major Chinese New Year events as medical staff handled patients in full-body protective suits and officials use fever scanners to screen travellers.

So far 17 people have been killed in Hubei province, state TV reported. The state media has described Wuhan, the capital of the province, as "the main battlefield" against the disease, AFP reported.

The virus has spread from the central Chinese city to major population centres including Beijing, Shanghai, Macau and Hong Kong, with 540 cases confirmed in China. Of this, 444 are in Hubei.

Abroad, Thailand has confirmed four cases, while the US, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have each reported one.

In contrasting to the secrecy over the 2002-03 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) that killed nearly 800 people, China has this time given regular updates to try and head off panic as millions travel at home and abroad for Chinese New Year, which starts tomorrow, Reuters reported.

"The rise in the mobility of the public has objectively increased the risk of the epidemic spreading," China's National Health Commission Vice-Minister Li Bin acknowledged.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) began an emergency meeting yesterday to rule if the outbreak was a global health emergency.

Mr Li said the virus, which can cause pneumonia, was being spread via breathing. About 2,200 people in contact with infected people were in isolation.

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said new cases would appear as China stepped up monitoring. But Mr Li said there was no evidence of "super-spreaders" capable of disseminating the virus more widely, as happened during the Sars outbreak.

DON'T LEAVE THE CITY

Wuhan's mayor Zhou Xianwang urged residents not to leave the city and visitors to avoid it so that the possibility of transmission can be reduced.

Fever scanners have been set up at the city's train station and airport, and officials are checking the temperatures of drivers at highway checkpoints.

Outbound tour groups have been banned from leaving the city.

Wuhan, a major transport hub, has 11 million inhabitants and is where the vast majority of cases of the new virus have been found. The now-closed seafood market in the city suspected to be the epicentre illegally sold wild animals.

Police are conducting spot checks for live poultry or wild animals in vehicles exiting and entering the city.

In spite of advice not to leave Wuhan, some still chose to travel during the key holiday.

"The simplest thing they seem to be telling us to do is not to travel but we've already made these plans so there is nothing we can do," said 23-year-old Kong Jun, a Wuhan resident arriving in Bangkok yesterday.

The Health Commission announced measures to curb the spread, including disinfection and ventilation at airports and bus stations as well as inside planes and trains.

Mr Charly Bonnassie, a 24-year-old French student, told AFP he took a train leaving Wuhan yesterday and said: "Every one, meaning 100 per cent, was wearing a mask."

Footage on state broadcaster CCTV showed Wuhan medical staff in full-body protective suits, gloves and plastic face visors as they registered patients.

The patients, wearing normal clothes with face masks, had their temperatures checked as queues snaked out of the consultation room into the corridor.

Wuhan cancelled the annual prayer at the city's Guiyuan Temple and closed the temple, which attracted 700,000 tourists during last year's holiday.

This year, city authorities said 30,000 tourists had already booked tickets to festive celebrations and 200,000 free event coupons had been distributed.

China's Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the top legal authority in the country, said that anyone failing to report virus cases "will be forever nailed to the pillar of historical shame".

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