More than 40 members of UN staff and their families have caught coronavirus in Syria, a UN official told AFP Tuesday, warning the illness was spreading in the war-torn country.
There were about 200 people including "staff and dependents, spouses, children, parents, who have displayed symptoms of Covid-19," said Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
"From these 200, there are 42 staff and dependents who have been confirmed positive with Covid-19," he added, speaking to AFP from Geneva, without specifying the nationalities of the infected personnel.
Three people had had to be medically evacuated, but most of the others had only "mild" symptoms. The suspected cases were self-isolating for a 14-day period, he said, adding the virus had sickened people working in different UN agencies across the country.
"It caught us at a time where we have seen a very significant rise, or increase, in the level of Covid-19 in Syria," Laerke said.
"We believe community transmission is widespread, and that the actual cases exceeds those that are officially recorded."
Since the start of the pandemic, Syria has officially recorded 3,229 cases of Covid-19, with 137 deaths registered in zones controlled by the Damascus government, according to health ministry figures.
But in the past weeks, doctors and activists have voiced concerns on social networks of a possible explosion in the number of virus cases.
Human Rights Watch said last week that frontline staff battling the novel coronavirus in government-held areas were dying in growing numbers for want of personal protective equipment
"It is bewildering that as the obituaries for doctors and nurses responding to the Covid-19 pandemic pile up, official numbers tell a story at odds with the reality on the ground," said HRW researcher Sara Kayyali.
Nine years of civil war have battered Syria's healthcare system, with hospitals damaged by bombing, vital equipment lacking and doctors wounded or forced to flee fighting.
The government now controls most of the country, but the northwest remains in rebel hands while the northeast is controlled by US-backed Kurdish forces.
The Syrian health ministry recently admitted it did not always have the capacity to carry out large-scale testing across different provinces.