The secretive and repressive nation of Turkmenistan continued to report zero cases of coronavirus as the head of a World Health Organization delegation to the country urged officials to act “as if” the virus was circulating.
The Central Asian republic is one of only a handful of nations, including North Korea and some Pacific island states, to have recorded no cases of the disease.
At a joint press conference at the end of a 10-day mission to the country Dr Catherine Smallwood, senior emergency officer for WHO’s European office, said she was “aware of and concerned by reports of increasing cases of acute respiratory disease or pneumonia” in the country.
She said that while Turkmenistan continued to report zero cases of Covid-19 the country fully recognises the risk currently posed by the virus.
She added: “WHO advises the activation of critical public health measures in Turkmenistan as if Covid-19 was circulating.
“This includes the identification of persons with acute respiratory infections, isolating and testing them early, tracing their contacts and caring for the sick."
Dr Smallwood added that WHO expects all countries “in line with their rights and obligations under International Health Regulations” to report any unusual or unexpected events to the WHO regardless of their origin or source.
When asked how many people had been tested for Covid-19 in the country Dr Smallwood said that information would be included in her report which would be shared “as soon as possible”.
Multiple reports have quoted medical personnel, unnamed officials and local residents as saying that a significant number of people have been hospitalised with symptoms consistent with Covid-19.
Turkmenistan shares a border with four other countries, including Iran and Kazakhstan, both of which are currently experiencing major outbreaks of the disease.
Kazakhstan became the first country in the world to return to a full lockdown after reporting a huge surge in cases. And Iran, which was hit hard by the disease in March, has experienced a spike in the number of infections in the last month although numbers appear to have plateaued.
On Monday the Turkmenistan government ordered its citizens to wear masks because of “high concentrations of dust” and pathogens in the air.
However, Dr Gurbangul Ovliyagulova, head of the dangerous diseases surveillance department at the Turkmenistan ministry of health, told the press conference there were no unusual lung infections in the country.
“There is no pneumonia of unclear aetiology in Turkmenistan,” she said.
At a government press conference earlier on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Rashid Mederov appeared to suggest viruses could reach the country via dust storms.
“We do not exclude the influence of natural factors on the distribution of hazardous substances, including viruses,” he said.
The WHO mission, which was much delayed because of travel restrictions, visited several hospitals as well as a public health laboratory, although the visits appear to have been controlled by the government.
“In the facilities we saw there was clear evidence that the response to Covid-19 is being planned, measures are being put in place and there are facilities to deal with an influx of Covid-19 patients,” said Dr Smallwood.
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