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.
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.
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.