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Seoul mayor declares 'war' on MERS after fourth death

Update: June, 05/2015 - 11:04

SEOUL — South Korea reported on 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 on Thursday after testing positive for the virus on May 21.

Criticised 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 65km south of Seoul, between May 15-29 should report to a clinic for screening.

The government had initially declined to name any hospitals treating MERS cases, arguing that 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 criticised 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 on Friday.

Health Minister Moon Hyong-pyo apologised 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.

The World Health Organisation 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. — AFP

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