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MERS outbreak claims new victim as Hong Kong issues travel warning

Jung Yeon-Je, AFP | South Korean school students wear face masks during a special class on MERS virus at a school in Seoul on June 3, 2015

South Korea’s health ministry on Tuesday revealed that a seventh patient infected with the MERS virus had died as Hong Kong issued an alert restricting travel to the East Asian country.

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The ministry said it had identified eight new cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), bringing the total number of known infections in the country to 95. However, the figure represented a sharp drop in the number of new daily cases, with 23 reported on Monday.

Korean authorities meanwhile closed a growing number of schools, shutting out students from 2,199 separate institutions, including 19 universities.

Nam Kyung-pil, governor of Gyeonggi province, which surrounds the South Korean capital of Seoul, said the country was fighting two wars: “The war against the disease and the war against fear.”

‘Red alert’ warning

Officials in Hong Kong also rushed to stem a further spread of the killer virus, saying on Tuesday that the Asian business hub would issue a red alert against non-essential travel to South Korea.

Hong Kong’s number two official, Carrie Lam, told reporters just ahead of a meeting of the city’s Executive Council that the red alert would be issued.

A red alert is defined as a “significant threat” according to the Hong Kong government, and means people should “adjust travel plans” and “avoid non-essential travel”.

The World Health Organization (WHO) began work on a joint mission with South Korean doctors and officials to review the country’s response to the outbreak that began in May.

The WHO has not recommended any curb on travel, but thousands of travellers have reportedly cancelled plans to visit South Korea.

A national effort

The seventh reported death in South Korea was a 68-year-old woman who had an existing heart ailment and had been in the emergency room of a Seoul hospital, to where a number of previous confirmed cases had been traced.

Three of the latest cases came from the same emergency room, which has 37 out of the total of 95 patients, the ministry said. All 95 cases of infection took place in health care facilities, according to officials.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has called for an all-out national effort to eradicate the outbreak, which has been spreading since a businessman brought it home from a Middle East trip last month.

South Korea has the second highest number of infections after Saudi Arabia, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
South Korea’s new cases bring the total of MERS cases globally to 1,244, based on World Health Organization (WHO) data, with at least 446 related deaths.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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