South Korea reports first two deaths from MERS respiratory illness

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 01, 2015 4:07 AM

By Ju-min Park and Jack Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea on Tuesday reported its first two deaths from an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) that has infected 25 people in two weeks, as public alarm grew and officials scrambled to contain the outbreak.

South Korea has isolated more than 700 people for possible MERS infection, which is caused by a coronavirus from the same family as the one that triggered the deadly 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), but MERS has a much higher death rate than SARS and there is no cure or vaccine.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) puts the total number of cases globally at 1,154, with at least 434 related deaths.

A 58-year-old woman, who had contact with South Korea's first patient, died of acute respiratory failure on Monday, the Health Ministry said. A 71-year-old man who had been on respiratory support with a history of kidney ailments also died.

South Korea's health ministry reported seven new cases on Tuesday, including the woman who died, bringing the total number of cases to 25. South Korea now has the third highest number of cases after Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Deputy Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan said the government's credibility was at stake after criticism against authorities for failing to contain the virus after the first patient's symptoms were initially overlooked.

"We will bring together all our health-related capabilities now and work to dissolve anxiety and concerns quickly," he said.

The death rate from MERS, first identified in humans in 2012, has been 38 percent, according to WHO figures, with older patients and those with existing respiratory and renal ailments at greater risk, according to a South Korean doctor.

By comparison, the death rate from SARS was 9 to 12 percent, rising above 50 percent for patients over 65, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

PUBLIC ALARM GROWING

The WHO has so far not recommended travel or trade restrictions for South Korea.

But South Korean border control authorities have issued a ban on overseas travel for people isolated for possible infection, a health ministry official said.

South Korea's Hyundai Motor said it had asked employees to avoid traveling to the Middle East, while chipmaker SK Hynix said it would instruct employees to avoid non-essential overseas work travel.

Seven kindergartens and one elementary school near the hospital in Gyeonggi province which reported the first death were shut for the week.

"So far it’s been inside hospitals that infections occurred but as soon as it gets out, it’ll probably spread rapidly," said Lee Yu-jeong, a 41-year-old mother of three children.

"As a parent, it is worrying ... the mood among mothers is that even if you’re a little sick, you try to avoid hospitals."

Some tour agencies have started seeing overseas groups cancelling trips to South Korea, with one company reporting a group of 300 Chinese scrapping a visit this week and another also seeing cancellations by Chinese travelers.

China last week reported its first MERS case -- a South Korean man who tested positive after breaking a voluntary house quarantine and flew to Hong Kong and then traveled to mainland China.

Xinhua news agency reported that the patient's condition had worsened and authorities were looking for people who had been in close contact with him.

(Additional reporting by Joyce Lee, Meeyoung Cho, Se Young Lee, Hyunjoo Jin and Sohee Kim; Editing by Michael Perry and Tony Munroe)