GENEVA - The World Health Organization is welcoming China's decision to temporarily suspend all transportation in and out of the city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday placing the Chinese city of 11 million under virtual quarantine was a strong measure but appropriate measure based on the threats posed by the new coronavirus.
"We stressed to them (China) that by having a strong action, not only they will control the outbreak in their country, but they will also minimize the chances of this outbreak spreading internationally," he said.
More than 500 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed, with at least 17 deaths. Most of the cases and deaths have occurred within China, but the disease has spread internationally to other countries; namely Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States.
The spread has increased pressure upon the Chinese authorities to take more vigorous action to curb the outbreak.
In response, China's government has temporarily suspended air and train travel in and out of Wuhan and closed the city's internal bus and subway system. Residents have been advised to wear masks and to avoid crowds. Two other cities, Huanggang and Ezhou have instituted similar measures.
Ghebreyesus said that there was nothing unusual about these actions, which were similar to other extreme measures that have been taken during previous health crises."
Public transport and other mass gatherings should be avoided. So, they are taking measures based on that," he said. "They know what measures to take in order to prevent transmission -- especially mass gathering is one of the risks."
Fears of the coronavirus spreading widely during the current Lunar holidays, when millions of people travel to join their families have prompted several airlines, including carriers from Malaysia and Singapore, to temporarily stop flights to and from Wuhan.
While these de facto travel bans have been put in place, a WHO expert emergency committee, which remains split on a decision to declare the coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), has gone into a second day of deliberations.
WATCH: Carol Pearson's video report on the deadly illness
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Didier Houssin, chair of the emergency committee, said experts disagreed over the question of the assessment of severity and transmission of the virus. "
The committee felt that it was too imprecise to very clearly say that it was time to suggest to the DG to declare a PHEIC," Houssin said. "This is why the opinion of the committee was split and given the evolution of the situation...the committee was ready to reconvene...in order to discuss additional information."
Houssin said the question of the fatality rate from this new pneumonia-like virus also was raised by the committee. "
If we refer to the previous coronavirus epidemics in 2003 and more recently with the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) coronavirus, the fatality rate was much higher than it appears to be today," he said. "But this is one of the aspects for which we would like to have more information because it is, of course, a very important point to decide whether it is a major public threat, public health threat or not."
The SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2003 sickened more than 8,000 people and killed 774. Preliminary data indicate that most of the confirmed cases of coronavirus have been mild.
Older men at higher risk
The committee found that older men, approximately 72% of the cases, were at higher risk of getting ill and that some 40% of these patients "had underlying diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease."
Coronavirus is mainly transmitted from animals to humans, but scientists have ascertained that there is limited human-to-human transmission. The health experts meeting in emergency session have warned against people coming in close contact with anyone suspected of carrying the virus.
"The primary issue is to limit human-to-human transmission, to reduce secondary infections, especially among close contacts, and particularly in health care environments," said Michael Ryan, executive Director of WHO Health Emergencies Program. "We need to prevent transmission through amplification events and super-spreading events, and obviously prevent further international spread.