S. Korea re­ports 6th MERS death, surge in in­fec­tions


South Korea recorded its sixth death and big­gest sin­gle- day jump in Mid­dle East Re­s­pi­ra­tory Syn­drome ( MERS) in­fec­tions Mon­day, with 23 new cases in the largest out­break of the po­ten­tially deadly virus out­side Saudi Ara­bia.

From just four cases two weeks ago, the to­tal num­ber of in­fec­tions now stands at 87, in­clud­ing six peo­ple who have died.

The lat­est fa­tal­ity was an 80- year- old man who died Mon­day morn­ing in a hos­pi­tal in Dae­jeon, 140 kilo­me­ters ( 87 miles) south of Seoul, the health min­istry said.

The out­break has trig­gered wide­spread public con­cern in South Korea, with 2,500 peo­ple placed un­der quar­an­tine or­ders and nearly 2,000 schools — mostly in Seoul and sur­round­ing Gyeonggi prov­ince — closed down.

But ex­perts say the like­li­hood of a se­ri­ous epi­demic is re­mote, given that the MERS virus is not eas­ily trans­mit­ted per­son- top­er­son.

“The chance of a mas­sive out­break in South Korea is not high,” said Ho Pak- le­ung, a mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy ex­pert at the Uni­ver­sity of Hong Kong.

“Rather I think there will be con­tin­ued trans­mis­sions at a low level,” Ho told AFP.

Among the new cases an­nounced Mon­day, most were in­fected at the Sam­sung Med­i­cal Cen­tre in south­ern Seoul — one of the coun­try’s largest hos­pi­tals where nearly 900 pa­tients and staff have now been placed un­der ob­ser­va­tion.

First Teenage Case

A 16- year- old stu­dent be­came the first teenage case, but the ed­u­ca­tion min­istry stressed he had con­tracted the virus while al­ready in hos­pi­tal, so it was “not pos­si­ble” that he had in­fected any class­mates at school.

All the in­fec­tions so far have been re­stricted to hos­pi­tals.

Crit­i­cized for its ini­tial re­sponse to the out­break, the gov­ern­ment on Sun­day vowed “all­out” ef­forts to curb the fur­ther spread of the virus, in­clud­ing track­ing the mo­bile phones of those un­der house quar­an­tine to en­sure they stay home.

Sev­eral have al­ready been caught sneak­ing out, de­spite fac­ing pos­si­ble fines of three mil­lion won ( US$ 2,670).

Chung Eun- kyung, a se­nior of­fi­cial at the Korea Cen­tre for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, said those con­fined to their homes should stay alone in a room and wear a sur­gi­cal mask when in­ter­act­ing with fam­ily mem­bers.

Hun­dreds of public events, school trips and sport­ing fix­tures have been can­celled, with movie the­atres, theme parks and shop­ping malls re­port­ing big drops in the num­ber of cus­tomers.

Ticket sales at movie the­atres fell to 2.46 mil­lion for the first week of June, down from 3.85 mil­lion a week ear­lier, ac­cord­ing to the Korea Film Coun­cil.

Emp­ty­ing Su­per­mar­kets

Both E- Mart and Lotte Mart, two of the coun­try’s big­gest su­per­mar­ket chains, re­ported a 12 per­cent drop in weekly store sales, cou­pled with a 50 per­cent surge in on­line sales.

Those who did ven­ture to the stores were greeted by staff who wiped down the han­dles of the su­per­mar­ket trol­leys be­fore and af­ter use.

Schools that re­mained open screened stu­dents ar­riv­ing for class Mon­day morn­ing, check­ing their tem­per­a­ture with an ear ther­mome­ter at the gate and send­ing home any­one with even a mild fever.

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