AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Chinese officials have announced a drastic step to stop an outbreak of a new virus there. They are suspending transportation out of a city at the heart of the outbreak. According to Chinese state media, starting Thursday, passenger transport in the city of Wuhan will be shut down temporarily, and no one will be able to leave without, quote, "special reason." This move comes as the head of the World Health Organization says he needs more information to decide whether this outbreak should be declared a global health emergency. NPR's global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman is here in our studio.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So tell us a little more about Wuhan. I mean, why are Chinese authorities focusing so closely on this Chinese city?
AIZENMAN: So Wuhan is a large city - roughly 11 million people - in central China. And it's where, early last month, people first started getting sick with this new virus, coming down with symptoms like fever and severe pneumonia. And since then, the number of confirmed cases has ballooned to over 500, including cases across China. And, in fact, travelers with the virus have even reached several other countries, including the U.S. But the bulk of confirmed cases are still in Wuhan.
CHANG: OK, so what more do we know about this plan to limit travel out of the city? I mean, how sweeping is it?
AIZENMAN: Yeah. The details are still sketchy, but it's sounding like a pretty intense move. According to Chinese state media, starting Thursday morning, city passenger buses, subways and ferries will be suspended, as will be flights and trains out of Wuhan. And there's this provision that citizens who want to leave will need to provide, quote, "special reasons." We don't know what qualifies as an allowable reason and how it will be enforced.
CHANG: And how unusual is a step like this when it comes to trying to contain a disease - to shut down a city, basically?
AIZENMAN: Well, I've checked in with several experts on infectious disease outbreaks, and the consensus is it's very unusual to take such a broad step. And I'm also hearing a lot of concerns. This could hurt the local economy. It could erode the people in Wuhan's trust in officials, and the health experts I've spoken with also don't think this is likely to be a productive way of stopping the spread of the virus.
CHANG: I mean, meanwhile, the World Health Organization is considering whether to call this outbreak an international global health emergency, right?
AIZENMAN: Right. And there was a meeting today to consider taking that step. But at the end of it, the WHO's director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he needs more information. In particular, he wants more evidence about how infectious this virus is. How is it actually spreading? For instance, are these cases that have been confirmed in the last several days - are they people who were initially infected or has the virus gone on to infect third or even fourth rings of people? So the emergency committee is going to be meeting tomorrow to discuss this more.
CHANG: OK. He needs more information, but how transparent is China being about this whole outbreak?
AIZENMAN: That is always a concern. It's been a concern in the past. He said at a press conference today that this time, they are being communicative.
CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Nurith Aizenman.
AIZENMAN: Glad to do it.
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