South Korea reports 7th MERS death, vows to end outbreak

2015-06-09 13:36
Visitors wearing masks as a precaution against MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, virus, walk at a shopping district in Seoul, South Korea, June 9 2015. (Lee Jin-man. AP)

Visitors wearing masks as a precaution against MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, virus, walk at a shopping district in Seoul, South Korea, June 9 2015. (Lee Jin-man. AP)

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Seoul - South Korea reported its seventh death on Tuesday from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) as the government, concerned at the economic impact, said it hoped to halt the outbreak of the virus by the end of the week.

Eight new infections brought the total number of cases to 95 in the largest outbreak outside Saudi Arabia, following the diagnosis of the first patient back on May 20.

The virus has caused widespread public anxiety and led to a plunge in cinema ticket sales and dwindling attendance at baseball games and other public events.

"Public concerns are rising over the negative impact of the MERS outbreak on our economy and society," Acting Prime Minister Choi Kyung-Hwan said during a meeting with top health officials.

"So we have decided to... launch an active, all-out response with the goal of ending the MERS crisis within this week," said Choi, who is also the finance minister.

The latest fatality was a 68-year-old woman who was infected by a MERS patient at a hospital in Seoul.

Hospitals the focus

All the infections so far have been restricted to hospitals, and the ministry stressed that all seven who died had pre-existing health problems.

The virus is considered a deadlier but less infectious cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed hundreds of people when it appeared in Asia in 2003.

There is no vaccine or cure for the virus which, according to World Health Organisation data, has a fatality rate of around 35%.

"People may be concerned, but I hope that they will not overreact and cooperate to ensure that economic activities will not be weakened," President Park Geun-Hye told a cabinet meeting.

The outbreak has hit the tourist industry, with more than 45 000 scheduled visitors – mostly Chinese – cancelling trips to South Korea in the first week of June, the Korea Tourism Board said.

Xiu Xin, a Chinese tourist in Seoul, said he had decided to go ahead with his trip despite the health scare.

‘Not so scary’

"I'd heard about the virus and was a little worried. But after I got here, it wasn't so scary," Xiu told AFP.

"I'm just wearing this to feel better," he added, pointing to the surgical mask on his face.

The eight new cases reported on Tuesday were well down on the 23 fresh infections announced the day before, but experts said it was premature to talk about a declining trend.

"This week will be a crucial period," the health ministry said, adding that three people had been discharged from hospital after fully recovering from the disease.

Almost 2 900 people have been placed under quarantine – most of them in their own homes – and nearly 2 200 schools have been closed down despite no evidence of any infection outside hospital facilities.

Questions have also been raised over the World Student Games, due to be held in the southern city of Gwangju next month.

But organisers of the Universiade said no country had withdrawn and the event's medical team put out a statement stressing that preparations were proceeding normally.

"The MERS outbreak which has been quite limited will not have any effect on the Games," the statement said.

Read more on:    south korea  |  health

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