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Afghanistan finds first coronavirus case: Health minister


KABUL: Afghanistan has detected its first novel coronavirus case, the country's health minister said Monday, involving a patient who had recently traveled to Iran, where 12 people have died from the outbreak.

"I announce the first positive coronavirus (case) in Herat," health minister Firozuddin Feroz told a press conference, calling on citizens to avoid travel to the western province which borders Iran.

Afghan authorities had earlier announced a suspension of air and ground travel to Iran, as fears mount across the region over a jump in new coronavirus infections.

Iran has registered the highest number of fatalities outside China, the epicenter of the epidemic.

Feroz said the patient had traveled to the Iranian holy city of Qom.

"Our people should avoid handshakes, hugging and kissing," he added.

Both Afghanistan and Pakistan share long, porous borders with Iran that are often used by smugglers and human traffickers, while millions of Afghan refugees currently live in the Islamic Republic -- raising fears that the virus could easily spread over the border.

Iran on Monday reported four more deaths, bringing the toll from the COVID-19 virus to 12 and the overall number of infections to 47, the semi-official news agency ISNA said, quoting a parliament spokesman.

Desperate and jobless Afghans have crossed the porous border with Iran for years in search of work to support their struggling families back home.

But hundreds of thousands of Afghans have returned home in recent years as US sanctions have battered the Iranian economy.

The war-torn South Asian nation is poorly equipped to deal with a potential outbreak, with health authorities struggling to deliver basic services across the mountainous, poverty-stricken country.

Pakistan meanwhile has closed its land border with Iran, where authorities have ordered the closure of schools, universities and other educational centers in 14 provinces from Sunday.

The novel coronavirus has spread to more than 25 countries, with more than 2,500 dead in China, and is causing mounting alarm due to new pockets of outbreaks in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.