Preparations for an outbreak of coronavirus were underway in Afghanistan as the country confirmed its in the western province of Herat, which borders Iran.
Seven more suspected cases have been identified in Herat, and three cases in the nearby provinces of Farah and Ghor.
The affected Herat residents had recently returned from Qom in Iran, where the coronavirus outbreak has already killed and infected dozens of others, according to Iranian officials.
Afghanistan’s national security council announced on Monday that all air travel to and from Iran and borders had been closed.
However, an estimated 3,000 people cross between Iran and illegally every day.
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Oral swabs have been sent from Herat to Kabul’s central public health laboratory for testing. The laboratory in Kabul is the only one in the country of 35 million people able to test for the virus. It has just three machines.
Alimi Sahib, a project manager at the lab, said more testing equipment was needed. “We need to decentralise to regional level, especially since test results take between four to six hours.
“If there are more cases in the provinces in the future, we cannot continue to send all of them to Kabul,” he said.
The World Health Organization (WHO) in Afghanistan said work to prepare for an outbreak had been underway since January, but the country needed at least $3.5m (£2.7m) to implement the measures needed.
“More than 700 surveillance-reporting health facilities have already been allocated in the provinces, but more funding is needed to equip isolated areas, as well as more staff, protective equipment and mechanical ventilation machines,” said Dr Elnoor Muntasir El Hassan from WHO.
The Afghan-Japan Communicable Disease Hospital in Kabul was gearing up to treat the virus in the city, where so far no cases have been reported. Munir Shah, a nurse at the hospital, said: “I’m very scared. The situation is tense. I walk through the empty halls and I worry that they might fill up.”
The hospital in the west of Kabul, which normally treats HIV and tuberculosis patients, has increased its bed count from 60 to 100, and has constructed separate male and female isolation wards.
Though it is empty and eerie, new equipment is arriving daily. Coronavirus awareness brochures and posters have been put up around the building.
“People are afraid,” said Dr Mohammed Khan, one of the hospital’s heads, but he added he felt confident. “We are ready to take on patients. We’ve dealt with other highly contagious viruses in the past, and we will be able to handle this one too – if it comes to Kabul.”
But amid political turmoil, the threat of a wider coronavirus outbreak has added to an already tense environment throughout Afghanistan.
Last week’s in which President Ashraf Ghani was reelected for another five-year term, have been disputed by his main rival Abdullah Abdullah, who also declared himself the winner and said he would form a separate government.
The country is in the midst of a , preceded by the signing of a between the US and the Taliban, that could end America’s longest war in history and lead to its troops leaving the country.
“Everything is happening at once,” Khan said, standing outside the clinic on the outskirts of the city. “I hope we can at least fend off the coronavirus.”