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Coronavirus: First confirmed case in Syria's Idlib ignites fear of outbreak

Northwest Syria is home to about three million people, many of whom live in close-quartered displacement camps
A view over Azraq camp for displaced Syrians near the town of Maaret Misrin in Syria's northwestern Idlib province on 9 July (AFP/File photo)
Azraq camp for displaced Syrians near town of Maaret Misrin in Syria's northwestern Idlib province on 9 July (AFP/File photo)

A doctor in Idlib became the first documented person in northwest Syria to test positive for the novel coronavirus, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said, reviving fears of disaster if the pandemic reaches the rebel-held province's displacement camps. 

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The head of the WHO's office in southern Turkey's Gaziantep, Mahmoud Daher, on Thursday said the patient was a male Syrian doctor in his 30s who had been working in a hospital in the town of Bab al-Hawa on the Syrian-Turkish border.

"He suspected that he might have contracted Covid-19," and a test came back positive on Thursday, Daher said, adding that there had been no cases in northwest Syria reported prior to this one. 

Opposition health official Maram al-Sheikh confirmed the news on Thursday. He said the hospital had been closed and the doctor's living quarters were sealed off to the public. Those who had been in contact with the doctor had also been swabbed and isolated. 

Sheikh, in a statement on Twitter, said that an emergency meeting had been held. 

'A real problem'

Aid groups have been preparing for months to prevent an outbreak in northwest Syria, where a fragile truce has stemmed a Russia-backed Syrian government offensive in the Idlib region.

The area is home to about three million people, many living in close quarters in displacement camps after being forced to flee their homes during Syria's nine-year-old war.

Daher, of the WHO, said the discovery of a first case was "worrying because of the conditions on the ground".

"We need to enhance our work with all authorities and service providers on the ground to make sure that no further transmission of Covid-19 can happen. Otherwise, it might become a real problem," he said. 

A quarantine centre equipped with 15 large rooms and 200 total beds was set up in Idlib in mid-April to screen travellers for fear they could transmit the virus. 

At the time, Manal al-Muhammad, a senior doctor at the quarantine centre, told Middle East Eye that people returning from Turkey were quarantined for 14 days upon arrival to ensure they had not contracted the coronavirus.

Syria has officially recorded 372 cases of coronavirus, including 14 deaths in government-held areas.

In the Kurdish-controlled northeast, the United Nations has recorded six cases including one death.