Seoul mayor de­clares ‘war’ on MERS af­ter fourth death


South Korea re­ported Fri­day a fourth death from Mid­dle East Re­s­pi­ra­tory Syn­drome (MERS), as an in­fected doc­tor fu­elled fears of a fresh surge in cases and prompted Seoul’s mayor to de­clare “war” on the virus.

Five new cases overnight took the num­ber of in­fected peo­ple to 41 in what has be­come the largest MERS out­break out­side Saudi Ara­bia, with close to 2,000 peo­ple in quar­an­tine or un­der ob­ser­va­tion.

The lat­est fa­tal­ity was a 76- year- old male pa­tient who died Thurs­day af­ter testing pos­i­tive for the virus on May 21.

Crit­i­cized for its lack of trans­parency in ad­dress­ing the health scare, the Health Min­istry fi­nally con­firmed the name of the hos­pi­tal where the first pa­tient to be di­ag­nosed with MERS was treated.

The min­istry said any­one who had vis­ited the hos­pi­tal in Pyeong­taek, about 65 kilo­me­ters (40 miles) south of Seoul, be­tween May 15-29 should clinic for screen­ing.

The gov­ern­ment had ini­tially de­clined to name any hos­pi­tals treat­ing cases of MERS, for which there is no vac­cine or cure, ar­gu­ing it could cause them un­fair com­mer­cial losses.


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In­fected Doc­tor Fu­els Fears

Of par­tic­u­lar con­cern was the pos­i­tive test of a doc­tor at a ma­jor Seoul hos­pi­tal who was un­der­stood to have taken part in public meet­ings at­tended by up to 1,500 peo­ple while in­fec­tious.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon crit­i­cized the gov­ern­ment for not shar­ing in­for­ma­tion about the doc­tor’s move­ments, and said his ad­min­is­tra­tion would take the lead in en­sur­ing public safety.

“From now on, Seoul city is em­bark­ing on a war against MERS. We will take swift and stern mea­sures ... to pro­tect the lives and safety of our cit­i­zens,” Park told re­porters Fri­day.

Health Min­is­ter Moon Hy­ongpyo apol­o­gized for the public anx­i­ety caused by the out­break, but re­jected Park’s crit­i­cisms, say­ing the mayor was en­cour­ag­ing “mis­trust and mis­un­der­stand­ing”.

The gov­ern­ment had been han­dling the doc­tor’s case care­fully to avoid public panic, Moon added.

More than 1,000 schools, from kinder­gartens to col­leges, have tem­po­rar­ily shut down across the coun­try, while the gov­ern­ment’s MERS hot­line has been tak­ing thou­sands of calls a day.

Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion (WHO) MERS has now in­fected 1,179 peo­ple glob­ally, with 442 deaths. More than 20 coun­tries have been af­fected, with most cases in Saudi Ara­bia.

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.

Pos­si­ble Mu­ta­tion?

The WHO has said it ex­pects more in­fec­tions in South Korea, while stress­ing there was cur­rently “no ev­i­dence of sus­tained trans­mis­sion in the com­mu­nity.” A health min­istry state­ment said a WHO team would visit next week, cit­ing con­cerns that the virus has been show­ing a “slightly dif­fer­ent” pat­tern from the one de­tected in Mid­dle East.

“We have yet to de­ter­mine whether there has been any mu­ta­tion,” said Choi Bo-yul, the head of a civil­ian task force set up to help with the out­break.

Among the re­cent in­fec­tions was a Korean Air Force chief mas­ter sergeant, who rep­re­sented the first MERS case among mem­bers of the mil­i­tary.

The air­man is serv­ing at the air base in Osan, south of Seoul, which also hosts the U.S. 51st Fighter Wing.


South Korean Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye, right, talks with health care work­ers wear­ing protective gear as she vis­its the Na­tional Med­i­cal Cen­ter hous­ing Mid­dle East Re­s­pi­ra­tory Syn­drome (MERS) pa­tients in Seoul, South Korea on Fri­day, June 5.

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