DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A family of four Chinese tourists in the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday became the first cases in the Mideast of a new Chinese virus that causes flu-like symptoms, with an Emirati doctor saying the first to fall ill only showed symptoms after over a week on vacation.
Dr. Hussein al-Rand, an assistant undersecretary at the UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention, told The Associated Press that there was no reason to panic over virus. However, he acknowledged Emirati officials now were tracing the family’s steps since landing in this federation of seven sheikhdoms that includes Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
“Their condition is stable, they are awake, they are all receiving all the measures,” al-Rand said. “I would say to the public: Please, don’t be panicked. The health condition within the United Arab Emirates is safe.”
Among those sick in the family are a grandmother, her daughter, the daughter’s husband and the couple’s 9-year-old daughter, al-Rand said.
The family from Wuhan, the epicenter of the viral outbreak, entered the UAE on Jan. 16, al-Rand said. He declined to name the airline the family flew on and the airport at which they arrived. The UAE is home to long-haul carriers Emirates and Etihad Airways and is a hub for global air travel. Al-Rand also declined to say which cities they visited during their vacation.
Authorities at Abu Dhabi’s airport and Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest for international travel, began screening passengers and crew from incoming China flights on Jan. 23. That’s the day China shut down Wuhan’s airport and other transportation in the city to stop the spread of the virus. The lockdown has since expanded to include 17 cities with more than 50 million people in all.
That same day, Jan. 23, the grandmother among the family fell ill and sought medical care, al-Rand said. Public awareness about the virus had spread widely and doctors tested the grandmother for the new coronavirus and got a positive result. Authorities admitted the other three shortly after and they too tested positive.
On Wednesday, six days after the grandmother fell ill, the UAE announced the cases, initially providing little information. They later confirmed the number of those ill and their nationality. The World Health Organization, which is keeping track of those who fall ill from the new virus, reported the four cases in the UAE late Wednesday night.
Emirati officials are taking “all the necessary precautions in accordance with the scientific recommendations, conditions and standards approved by the World Health Organization,” the Health and Prevention Ministry said. “The general health condition is not a cause for concern.”
State-run and government-supporting media in the UAE carefully announced the news Wednesday, stressing that authorities said they had the situation under control. However, reports quickly emerged of face masks selling out at pharmacies as a popular online retailer had them as a top trending item.
At Arab Health, a major trade show happening this week in Dubai, a few Emiratis and others attending wore surgical masks while walking among the crowds.A few tourists also wore face masks while visiting sites in Dubai.
Al-Rand declined to name the Emirati hospital the four now are receiving treatment. He also declined to say how many people Emirati health authorities had contacted while tracing the family’s travel in the UAE.
Emirates meanwhile said it continued its flights to Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, as well as Hong Kong.
“We are providing masks and hand sanitisers to all crew on our flights to China,” the company said in a statement. “Our crew who serve passengers with any symptoms have been advised to wear masks onboard.”
The new type of coronavirus first appeared in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December. It causes flu-like symptoms, such as cough and fever and in severe cases pneumonia, that are similar to many other illnesses. It’s from the coronavirus family, which includes those that can cause the common cold as well as more serious illnesses such as SARS and MERS.
The viral outbreak that began in China has infected more than 6,000 people in the mainland and more than a dozen other countries. China’s death toll has passed 130.
Several countries have confirmed cases of the virus, with most of them being Chinese visitors, people who visited Wuhan or family members in close contact with the sick.
The source of the virus and the full extent of its spread are still unknown. However, the WHO said most cases reported to date “have been milder, with around 20% of those infected experiencing severe illness.”
Facing lower oil prices and a slumping housing market, the UAE has been aggressively pursuing more Chinese tourists to this country home to the world’s tallest building. Chinese visitors to the country can get visas on arrival to the UAE. Malls in Dubai now have Chinese on their signs alongside Arabic and English, with tour groups tramping through and high-end shoppers targeting luxury stores.
Dubai alone welcomed 989,000 tourists from China in 2019, up 15% from 857,000 in 2018, according to the city-state’s tourism department.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.
Associated Press writers Fay Abuelgasim and Kamran Jebreili in Dubai contributed to this report.