MERS in South Korea: 6th death, surge in infections

SEOUL, South Korea (2nd UPDATE) – South Korea recorded its sixth death and biggest single day jump in Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) infections Monday, June 8, with 23 new cases in the largest outbreak of the potentially deadly virus outside Saudi Arabia.

From just 4 cases two weeks ago, the total number of infections now stands at 87, including 6 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 1,900 schools – mostly in Seoul and surrounding Gyeonggi province – closed down.

Among the 23 new cases, 17 were infected at the Samsung Medical Centre in southern Seoul – one of the country's largest hospitals, and the one where the ailing 73-year-old chairman of Samsung Electronics has been in intensive care for more than a year.

The hospital said it had placed nearly 900 patients and medical staff under observation and expected to see more cases in the coming days.

First teenage case

Another new case was of a 16-year-old student hospitalized on May 27 for another disease, in the first case involving a teenager.

Given the period of time he had been in hospital, the education ministry stressed it was "not possible" that he had infected any classmates at school.

All the infections so far have been restricted to hospitals, with transmissions between patients, staff and their families.

One 50-year-old doctor was released from hospital after becoming only the second person to be passed fit after contracting the virus, for which there is no vaccine.

Criticized for its initial response to the outbreak, the government on Sunday, June 7, vowed "all-out" 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 fine of three million won ($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 theaters, theme parks and shopping malls reporting big drops in the number of customers.

Emptying supermarkets

Both E-Mart and Lotte Mart, two of the country's biggest supermarket chains, reported a 12% drop in weekly store sales from June 1 to June 6.

But sales on their websites surged by about 50% as more consumers chose to stay at home and shop online.

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.

Lee Hyun-Shil, who was taking her son to a kindergarten in Seoul, said she was in "utter shock" over the scale of the outbreak.

"I can't believe this is happening in South Korea," Lee told Agence France-Presse.

"I am really worried these days... and wonder if it's OK to use a subway to go somewhere," she said.

More than 20 countries have been affected by MERS, 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.

A team of officials from the World Health Organization arrived in Seoul on Monday to help investigate the outbreak and offer advice on its containment. – Jung Ha-Won, AFP / Rappler.com