Croatia reported the first known case of the new coronavirus in the Balkans region on Tuesday after a man who recently returned from Italy was found to be infected.
The announcement comes as Italy battles an outbreak of the virus, named COVID-19, with infections surging to nearly 300 in a matter of days, making it the hardest-hit country in Europe.
“It has been confirmed that the first patient was infected with the COVID-19 virus,” Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic told a press conference.
The patient is a young man “showing mild symptoms”, he added.
The man, who is in hospital in the Croatian capital Zagreb, spent several days in Milan last week, said Health Minister Vili Beros.
“At this moment we will concentrate on the contacts this young man had,” said Beros.
“For now, he shows signs of a milder disease and we hope it will remain that way,” he said, vowing to “raise our level preparedness and defence” against the spread of the disease.
At the moment, however, face masks are sold out across the nation, Beros said, promising to get new supplies as soon as possible.
There are fears northern Croatia could be hit by the virus as many locals go to Italy for work.
Local media reported that nine Croatian citizens who recently returned from Italy’s worst-hit Lombardy region have been hospitalised in the northern city of Rijeka.
“One patient who has symptoms is isolated, we expect results of (tests) in the afternoon,” said Rijeka hospital chief Davor Stimac.
Italy, which lies across the Adriatic from Croatia, has seen a huge surge in cases in recent days — from six to more than 283 since Friday.
Seven people have died after catching the virus, all of whom were either elderly or had pre-existing conditions.
Across the Balkan peninsula in southeast Europe, countries including Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro have been on high alert, cancelling school trips to Italy in recent days.
Albania, which has hundreds of thousands of its citizens in Italy, announced increased border controls.
In Bosnia, some 20 people including Chinese workers who recently returned from China have been placed under surveillance.
According to the World Health Organization, the epidemic has peaked at its epicentre in China, where it has killed more than 2,600 people and infected more than 77,000 others.
But the situation has worsened elsewhere with nearly 2,700 other cases and more than 40 deaths globally.