Turkish man tested positive for coronavirus in first case for country – health minister

(Recasts with latest Health Ministry announcement and updates from the Turkish Border and Coastal Health and tweets from healthcare workers)

Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca confirmed a Turkish man tested positive for the new strain of coronavirus on Tuesday, marking the first reported case for Turkey since the global outbreak began.

The patient was placed into isolation at an undisclosed hospital but was in good general condition, the health minister said, adding that he contracted the virus during his travel to Europe.

Koca urged Turkish citizens not to travel abroad and to fight together on the global issue.

The health minister admitted earlier on Tuesday COVID-19 had probably already arrived in the country, even though there had not yet been any confirmed cases.

Turkey’s apparent escape from infection had surprised many onlookers as the number of cases mounts in almost all of its neighbouring countries.

The risk to Turkey, whose location and national flag carrier Turkish Airlines makes it an international transport hub, was highlighted in several cases when passengers were diagnosed with COVID-19 after arriving at their destinations after travelling through Turkey.

At the same time, Turkey’s proximity to Iran, one of the countries worst hit by the virus, has greatly increased the chance of infected people entering the country despite the government’s precautions.

“I need to conduct further analysis to say whether the coronavirus is in Turkey or not, but right now the possibility that it is in Turkey is very high,” even though no cases had yet been diagnosed, Koca said.

The minister’s comments came less than one day after he denied that the virus had reached Turkey. Within hours of Koca’s denial, the governor of Maryland announced that an 86-year-old woman from the U.S. state had contracted coronavirus while travelling to Turkey. Saudi Arabia also suspended travel to Turkey and other countries on Monday.

But Koca tweeted that the only woman matching that description who was in Turkey in the past two weeks had passed through on a transit flight from the Albanian capital, Tirana.

Yet passengers infected with the coronavirus have flown out from Turkey before. One Turkish Airlines plane was sent home empty after carrying an infected passenger to Singapore last week. The first case recorded in Nigeria was an Italian man who flew there from Milan via Istanbul.

However, Koca was adamant that Turkey’s measures had prevented the kind of severe outbreak of the virus that has struck countries like Iran and Italy, pointing to the swift decision to suspend travel with Iran after it became a hotspot for the virus last month.

“We closed our border with Iran early, shutting links, including land and air, on Feb. 23. We’ve got a very heavy traffic with Iran, so that decision was taken right on time,” he said. “It prevented 20,000 Iranians from entering Turkey.”

A number of health workers have taken to social media to share their observations in the medical field.

One Twitter user, who says he works in a hospital, confirmed the statements by the Turkish Health Ministry.

“We are on the field and I swear by God that there are no cases [of COVID-19]. There is no meaningful increase in cold and flu cases… There is a high chance the virus exists here, but there is nothing in the form of an outbreak at this time,’’ he said.

A neurologist said on Twitter she, too, was baffled by the lack of cases.

“We are constant communication with infectionary disease experts. There is no epidemic at this time,’’ she wrote.

“Could there be one tomorrow? Most certainly,’’ she added.

 

The minister said Europe, and particularly Italy, had failed to take adequate measures to contain the spread of the virus, and called Turkey’s battle with the illness “a national struggle against a global problem”.

Turkey’s Border and Coastal Health General Directorate said the annual leaves of all its headquarters and field office personnel have been canceled until further notice.

The continued absence of reported victims of the new virus in Turkey has been greeted by many with scepticism as nearby countries have racked up thousands of cases.

The outbreak in Iran, which began shortly before elections were held and was exacerbated when the government played down risks to avoid a low turnout at polls, is believed to have spread to many times more than the reported cases, which were fewer than 7,000 on Monday.

Though Turkish authorities closed links with Iran early, busloads of Iranians were still crossing into Turkey after the contagion had reached Iran, and the border is known to be porous with many irregular migrants walking from Iran to Turkey each year.