S. Korea reports first MERS deaths
South Korea on Tuesday reported its first deaths from an outbreak of the MERS virus that has infected 25 people, caused widespread alarm and triggered a closer watch by Asian neighbors on Korean arrivals.
The two deaths were only the second case of fatalities from MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in Asia since a man died in Malaysia in April 2014.
In China state media said hundreds of people had cancelled trips to South Korea, while Thailand and Vietnam said they were reinforcing monitoring of inbound passengers at airports.
Hong Kong also stepped up surveillance and placed 18 people who had been seated near an infected Korean man on a flight from Seoul last week under mandatory quarantine.
The deaths announced by the South Korean health ministry were of a 58-year-old woman and a 71-year-old man.
Six more people were diagnosed with the MERS virus Monday night, the ministry said, bringing the total number of people infected to 25 including the two deceased.
The first case — a 68-year-old man diagnosed after returning from a trip to Saudi Arabia — was reported on May 20.
Around 750 people who were exposed directly or indirectly to the virus have now been placed under varying levels of quarantine.
“Those who are quarantined must be experiencing a lot of inconvenience in their daily lives, but please closely cooperate for the safety of yourself, your families and your neighbors,” said Health Minister Moon Hyung-pyo
Moon also urged citizens to wear surgical face masks in public places and to wash their hands frequently to ward off infection.
The outbreak has fuelled growing public alarm, and online retailers reported a 700 percent surge in sales of face masks over the weekend.
On Seoul stock markets, share prices of some pharmaceutical firms jumped by the daily limit of 15 percent on Tuesday, while those of airline and travel operators took a dive.
In Gyeonggi province, where the woman fatality was reported, around 40 private kindergartens and elementary schools closed down temporarily as concerned parents withdrew their children.
Kwon Jun- wook, a senior health ministry official leading an emergency task force, said more people were expected to be quarantined in the coming days, while 240 people had been banned from traveling overseas.
Three patients are currently in critical condition, he added.
Middle East Respiratory Syn- drome 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.
More than 20 countries have been affected by the MERS virus, which has no known cure or vaccine, with most cases in Saudi Arabia.
World Health Organization spokesman Christian Lindmeier said in Geneva that MERS has now infected 1,161 people globally, with 436 deaths.
He said it appears to have a fatality rate of 37-40 percent, but that figure should be used with caution since many less serious cases are never reported.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye has scolded health officials over their “insufficient” response to the outbreak, and for allowing an infected man to travel to China last week despite warnings from doctors.
The 44-year-old flew to Hong Kong before traveling on to the Chinese city of Huizhou, where he is currently being treated under quarantine in hospital.
A man walks in front of a quarantine tent for suspected MERS cases at the Seoul National University Hospital in Seoul on Tuesday, June 2.