South Korea reported Sunday its 15th death from the MERS virus as the growing outbreak that has infected 145 forced one of the nation’s biggest hospitals to suspend most services.
The latest fatality from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome was a 62-year-old man who died Sunday afternoon in the southern port city of Busan, the city council said.
He was diagnosed on June 7 after being infected in Samsung Medical Centre in Seoul — a major hospital and the epicentre of more than 70 cases.
The health ministry also confirmed Sunday seven new cases of the virus, including four from the Samsung hospital, bringing the total number of infections to 145.
Separately, a paramedic who helped transport a MERS patient to the hospital on June 7 was infected. On Saturday, authorities announced that the ambulance driver also involved in transporting the patient — who died three days later — had also been infected.
One of the other new patients was infected in the central city of Daejeon and another in Hwaseong, about 43 kilometres (27 miles) south of Seoul.
In order to prevent further infections among patients and medical staff, Samsung hospital on Sunday temporarily suspended most of its operations.
It will stop treating outpatients, admitting new patients, or performing surgeries that are not deemed urgent, hospital president Song Jae-Hoon told reporters.
No visitors will be allowed, he said, adding he would decide on June 24 whether or not to continue the partial suspension.
“We offer our deep apology and express regret to all of our patients who were infected here and those placed under quarantine,” he said.
The hospital — normally visited by more than 8,000 patients a day — has come under fire in recent weeks for failing to stem the spread of the virus among its staff and patients.
Two doctors and three nurses have been infected so far. More than 400 patients, families and medical staff directly or indirectly exposed to the infected ambulance driver had been newly placed under quarantine, Song said.
– Nearly 5,000 under quarantine –
The overall number of people across the nation who came into contact with patients and were put under quarantine — either at state facilities or at home — rose Sunday by more than 800 to 4,856.
As the outbreak continued to expand, a South Korean man thought to have contracted MERS was hospitalised in the Slovak capital Bratislava on Saturday.
The 38-year-old man reportedly arrived in Slovakia on June 3 and works for a subcontractor of Seoul carmaker Kia, which runs a plant in the central European country.
The man did not appear to have contact with patients or visited venues where infections were reported at home, Seoul’s foreign ministry said Sunday.
“He said he had not visited any hospital before leaving for Slovakia,” the ministry said in a statement, adding he had contacted the embassy in Slovakia on Saturday as he was developing symptoms such as fever.
There is no vaccine or cure for MERS which, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data, has a fatality rate of around 35 percent.
The outbreak in South Korea — the largest outside Saudi Arabia — began when a 68-year-old man was diagnosed on May 20 after a trip to Saudi Arabia.
The virus has since been spreading at an unusually fast pace, sparking widespread alarm in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
Businesses including shopping malls and restaurants have reported a sharp drop in sales as people shun public venues with large crowds.
About 100,000 foreign travellers have cancelled planned trips to South Korea since the beginning of this month.
A team of WHO experts who visited Seoul warned that the outbreak was “large and complex” and more cases should be expected.
But it also said it had found no evidence of transmission of the virus in communities outside hospitals.
The outbreak also sparked alarm elsewhere in Asia including Hong Kong, which last week advised its citizens to avoid non-essential travel to South Korea.