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With Europe's first confirmed coronavirus cases, how is France dealing with the disease?

French Health Minister Agnès Buzyn as she declared France was the first European country to have coronavirus cases, in Paris, January 24, 2020.
French Health Minister Agnès Buzyn as she declared France was the first European country to have coronavirus cases, in Paris, January 24, 2020. © Alain Jocard, AFP

As France confirmed the third coronavirus case on its territory on Friday January 24, authorities are gradually implementing a prevention and intervention plan in order to halt the spread of what could eventually become an epidemic.

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"You have to treat an epidemic like you treat a fire: you need to locate the source very quickly," French Health Minister Agnès Buzyn told reporters on Friday.

As French authorities confirmed on Friday its third coronavirus case – two cases in Paris and one in Bordeaux – health personnel have had to come up with urgent measures and an intervention plan, aimed at "containing" the SARS-like disease "as quickly as possible" in case it ever becomes an epidemic, Buzyn added.

French Prime minister Édouard Philippe was also expected to meet with ministers concerned by the disease on Sunday, including Buzyn and Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, as the government ponders evacuating its citizens from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the virus epicentre.

France officially became the first European country to be touched by the viral pneumonia, which has already contaminated almost 2,000 people and killed 56 others, mostly in Wuhan. Small number of cases have also been reported in Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Thailand, United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysa and Nepal.

Experts push for 'thermal cameras' in French airports

"Chinese authorities have put in place measures never before taken", including the confinement of tens of millions of people, Astrid Vabret, professor of virology medicine at the Caen University Hospital, told FRANCE 24.

"Thermal cameras" should be used in French airports, Vebret insisted, although "everybody is prepared in the hospitals" for an epidemic in France, she added.

According to Buzyn, France did not need to implement "specific recommendation for travellers", because the World Health Organization "did not wish to declare a public health emergency of international concern", she said after a cabinet meeting on Friday, before the deployment of medical personnel in airports.

'They didn't even ask what city we were coming from'

Indeed, passengers arriving from China were surprised at the "lightweight" health plan in Paris's main airport Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle, even though medical teams have been present at France's airports since Sunday morning. "We weren't tested, I might even have the virus," one French expatriate jokingly told AFP as he landed in Paris from Shanghai, early Sunday morning.

"There were a dozen first-aiders and two or three policemen," Claude Laubrieut also told AFP. "They just gave us very brief instructions. They didn't give us any form to fill, no heat control. They didn't even ask what city we were coming from," he added, surprised, while walking with his daughter.

"In Shanghai, they are controlling everybody," Laubrieut added. According to other travellers, they were all scanned by a "thermal machine" which verifies the person's temperature when passing through the Chinese megalopolis.

 

Quarantines only efficient with early implementation

For now, France is prioritising quarantines and isolation of sick people, rather than preventing. "Every person who has been in contact with [the three known] patients are being identified," the Health Ministry said in a statement. "They will receive specific instructions from the health authorities to avoid contact, in order to limit the spread of the virus."

 

Every suspicious case is advised not to go to the hospital but rather to call emergency services, so that an isolation unity can take charge. The Regional Health Agency (ARS) will then carry out examinations, in order to identify any possible cases of contamination.

As of now, health securities are "controlling and monitoring the family and the passengers of the plane the three patients took", Christophe Rapp, professor of infectious diseases, explained to FRANCE 24. This period of surveillance lasts "14 days, which is [the virus's] incubation period".

France's 'system is tottally capabale of handling this'

 

"France is well armed to face" the virus, Jan-Cédric Hansen, doctor at the Pacy-sur-Eure hospital centre, told FRANCE 24. "As long as we have a small number of patients – three, four, five or even 10 per day – our system is totally capable of handling this and we will limit the dissemination risk significantly."

According to the authorities, the quarantine is still seen as the best method, indeed an effective one if it is launched early, according to experts. "In China, the containment operations came too late and many people had already left," said Rapp.

According to the Health Ministry, if France was indeed the first European country to have identified cases, it was "probably because we started testing people very quickly and we were able to identify them", it said Friday evening.

The chance of “an epidemic in France or in Europe is weak, extremely weak”, Dr. Yazdan Yazdanpanah, who is treating two Paris hospital patients, told AP. “This illness is a lot less serious … than, for example, SARS,” he said, referring to the 2002 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome that killed hundreds of people.

"Its mortality is relatively weak, around 15 times less dangerous than SARS," agreed Hansen.

French Lunar New Year parades cancelled

But still, some French cities cancelled their Lunar New Year Parade, like the Chinese capital. In Paris, Chinese associations have cancelled the city's first one, said Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo on Europe 1 radio on Sunday. "They are very emotional and concerned … they are really not in a mood to party now."

Celebrations planned for the southwestern city of Bordeaux on Sunday were also cancelled, both as a way to reduce infection risk and as a tribute to the victims, its mayor said.

This article was adapted and updated from the original in French by Henrique Valdares.

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