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    How Belgium is preparing as coronavirus spreads

    Travellers have been advised to postpone non-urgent travel to the affected area in China and several Belgian universities have indefinitely suspended exchange programs with China. Credit: © Belga

    As a coronavirus outbreak which has put at least ten Chinese cities on lockdown spreads beyond the country’s borders, measures have been rolled out in Belgium as it braces for potential cases of infection.

    Since the outbreak was reported by China on 31 December, at least 26 Chinese people have died and the number of confirmed cases of the virus in the country has jumped to 830.

    Travellers urged to avoid outbreak area

    Belgium’s Foreign Affairs Ministry urged travellers them to “momentarily” postpone any non-urgent travel to the Chinese province of Hubei, whose capital city Wuhai is the epicentre of the outbreak.

    Since the first confirmed infection was reported in Thailand on 13 January, other cases have been reported outside of China, including in the US, Japan and South Korea.

    On 23 January, patients in two European countries were being tested for the virus, with 14 people screened in the UK and one undergoing tests in Italy.

    The ministry said that travel elsewhere in China remained possible on the condition that “usual precautions” were observed, and further warned travellers still visiting the province to be “extremely vigilant” since the virus evolved quickly.

    “Many victims contracted the virus in the Wuhan South China Seafood City market. It is therefore advised to avoid markets, live or dead animals, consumption of raw meat or contact with sick people,” the ministry added.

    Brussels Airport ready to act

    On Thursday, Brussels Airport said that it would not yet implement measures against the coronavirus outbreak, saying there are currently no flights to or from the affected area in China.

    The airport was closely following indications from the federal public health services (FPS Santé) and stood ready to implement preventative, screening or even quarantine measures “very quickly” if they became necessary.

    “We can develop the procedure very quickly, as we did with other viruses such as the Ebola virus,” a spokesperson with the airport said on Thursday.

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    Brussels hospital main care centre

    The FPS Santé have designated Brussels’ CHU Saint-Pierre hospitals as the leading facility to treat any potential cases of the disease.

    “It is one of the main hospitals in Belgium that is equipped for treating this kind of virus,” Audrey Dorigo, a spokesperson for the health ministry said, questioned by phone.

    “The hospital has a special unit for dealing with this kind of cases and they are well acquainted with sanitary rules and contention measures,” Vinciane Charlier of the FPS Santé added.

    While the hospital is the reference care centre for highly infectious diseases, having been designated as the main facility to deal with the Ebola outbreak in 2014, other hospitals in Belgium are also equipped for a potential outbreak.

    University programs suspended

    On Friday morning, Brussels’ Dutch-speaking VUB university announced it was pulling the plug on its exchange programs with China until further notice.

    “We calculated the risks and it was inevitable to stop study programs until it is clear what will be the consequences of the coronavirus,” VUB spokesperson Sicco Wittermans said.

    “At the moment, we have no academics or students in China, which is a relief for us,” Wittermans said.

    A spokesperson with the VUB’s francophone counterpart, the ULB, did not immediately reply to a request for comment, but Wittermans said that the KU Leuven and Antwerp universities had also taken similar measures.

    Belgium would ‘know what to do’

    No additional measures have been announced by public health services, with Charlier saying that officials were “not too concerned,” but that the situation could evolve.

    “We know that we can have cases of infection but we are not too worried for the time being, we are well acquainted with the [security] procedures and we know how to identify cases of infection,” she said.

    “For the time being, the disease is not very serious and we know what we would need to do if we have cases in Belgium,” she said.

    The outbreak in China has resulted in over 30 million people in at least ten different cities being put on lockdown, as the government scrambles to contain the spread.

    Outside China, a number of major European airports have put measures in place, including in London, Paris and Rome.

    Gabriela Galindo
    The Brussels Times