THURSDAY, Jan. 30, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- The World Health Organization declared the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak an international public health emergency on Thursday, as the United States reported its first case of person-to-person transmission of the virus.
The declaration states that the world's top health advisory body thinks the situation is grave, The New York Times reported. Countries can then make their own decisions about closing their borders, canceling flights, screening people arriving at airports or taking other protective measures.
In the United States, the latest coronavirus patient is the husband of a Chicago woman who was the second confirmed case in the United States. She had traveled to Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak, and fell ill upon her return home. The husband is in his 60s and has underlying health conditions, U.S. health officials said during a media briefing Thursday. Six cases of coronavirus have now been reported in the United States.
"This second patient [the husband] did not travel to China, indicating the first person-to-person transmission of novel coronavirus in the United States," said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
"The risk to the general public in Illinois remains low," Ezike said during the briefing. "This person-to-person spread was between two very close contacts, a wife and husband. The virus is not spreading widely across the community."
Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agreed.
"We understand this may be concerning, but based on what we know now our assessment remains that the risk to the public is low," Redfield said during the briefing.
"The vast majority of Americans have not had recent travel to China, the high-risk areas of transmission where human-to-human transmission is occurring," he added.
U.S. health experts said person-to-person transmission in the United States was inevitable.
"The main takeaway is this confirms something we already knew: that there was likely person-to-person spread in China with this virus. Otherwise the numbers wouldn't be as high as they are," said Dr. Eric Cioe-Pena, director of global health at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y.
In China, the case count kept climbing on Thursday, with cases of what is dubbed the 2019-nCoV coronavirus now reaching 8,149. The death total stands at 171, the Times reported. Those counts eclipse the 5,327 cases and 348 deaths reported in China during the 2003 SARS outbreak.
Meanwhile, countries around the world took steps to cut the risk of the virus spreading to their citizens.
In the United States, health officials explained on Wednesday what measures are being taken to make sure the Americans who were evacuated from Wuhan on Tuesday are not infected with the new virus.
While none of the 195 American evacuees have shown signs of sickness, they agreed to stay at the base voluntarily, said Dr. Chris Braden, of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The plan is to hold them for three days and check them for fever and other symptoms at least twice daily, CNN reported.
"They wanted to protect their family. They wanted to protect others," Braden said.
The Trump administration also announced on Wednesday that it had formed a coronavirus task force to monitor and manage the United States' response to the outbreak. Members of the task force have met every day this week, and President Donald Trump chaired the meeting on Wednesday, U.S. health officials said.
Managing the public health situation in China is far more challenging.
After first declining assistance from international health officials, Chinese authorities agreed to let expert teams coordinated by the World Health Organization visit China to help stem the outbreak, the Times reported Wednesday.
Chinese health officials have determined that people carrying the virus but not showing symptoms can still infect others. The incubation period can vary from one to 14 days, with a typical duration of about 10 days. That fact makes containment especially difficult. This was not the case with the SARS coronavirus outbreak.
Still, China's efforts to try to contain the outbreak continue, including a travel ban that involves more than 50 million people.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong has barred entry to visitors from Hubei province, which is at the center of the outbreak, and travel agencies were ordered to cancel group tours nationwide. Airlines around the world suspended flights to China on Wednesday, and Russia closed its 2,600-mile border with China, the Times reported.
Outside China, numerous countries have reported cases of coronavirus.
Thailand has reported 14 cases of infection; Japan has 11; Hong Kong and Singapore have 10; Taiwan has eight; Australia, Malaysia and Macau each have seven; France has five; South Korea, Germany and the United Arab Emirates each have 4; Canada has three; Vietnam has two; and India, the Philippines, Nepal, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Finland each have one.
Cases recorded in Taiwan, Germany, Vietnam and Japan involved patients who had not been to China. There have been no reported deaths outside China.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.