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South Korea confirms 11th MERS death

South Korea confirmed on Friday the 11th death from Middle East respiratory syndrome along with four new cases of infection, as the nation wrestled with concerns that the disease may have spread beyond hospitals.

The latest fatality ― a 72-year-old woman ― is one of 37 patients who caught the virus at Pyeongtaek St. Mary Hospital, according to the MERS special response team at the Health Ministry. She suffered from severe pneumonia, acute renal failure and multiple organ failures. She died at 11:50 a.m.

Fear of an epidemic grew across the country as authorities remained uncertain about where a 36-year-old policeman ― confirmed as a MERS patient Thursday ― had caught the virus. They said there was a possibility he caught the virus from Korea’s 52nd MERS patient while visiting Pyeongtaek Bagae Hospital on May 31.

But the authorities’ speculation was rebuffed later by the hospital, which said that patient No. 52 and the policeman never crossed paths at the hospital. The hospital surveillance records showed that the former had visited the hospital 17 minutes after the policeman left the facility.

Experts are raising the possibility of the virus having been already released among the general public, with the policeman having been infected via some other unknown source. As of Friday afternoon, the authorities have said all infections occurred within hospital walls.

A medical staff member wipes the sweat off her brow during a break after treating patients placed in quarantine at Daecheong Hospital in Daejeon on Friday. (Yonhap)
A medical staff member wipes the sweat off her brow during a break after treating patients placed in quarantine at Daecheong Hospital in Daejeon on Friday. (Yonhap)

The patient had originally been quarantined on June 2 after being identified as a suspected case. He was released from the hospital on June 4, but was readmitted to another hospital on June 5 after showing MERS symptoms.

If the authorities are right about the policeman being infected on May 31, it means he roamed through the general public for at least a full day.

“We cannot rule out the possibility of MERS being spread to the general public,” said Lee Jae-gap, an infectious disease expert at the Hallym University Kangdong Sacred Heart Hospital. But Lee, a civilian expert who is part of the government’s response team, said the possibility of a wide-scale infection remains slim.

The special response team also confirmed four more MERS cases, bringing the total number of cases in the country to 126.

Three of the newly infected patients appear to have caught the virus at Samsung Medical Center in southern Seoul, while another patient ― a 70-year-old woman ― appears to have been infected at Pyeongtaek Goodmorning Hospital, according to the MERS special response team at the Health Ministry.

As of Thursday, 3,680 people were quarantined for possible infection.

With the country struggling with the MERS scare, the country’s top officials made moves to alleviate the nationwide tension.

President Park Geun-hye visited the headquarters of the MERS response team in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province to inspect the progress of its efforts to contain the outbreak and provide moral support for the officials. The move came two days after Park postponed her planned visit to the U.S. in light of public concern over MERS.

In a meeting with foreign diplomats and business leaders in Seoul, Acting Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan also said the country was fully capable of containing the MERS outbreak. He asked the diplomats to relay Korea’s effort to contain the outbreak to their respective countries, as to prevent “excessive reaction or preemptive measures” by them.

Seoul‘s top educator also said he would lift the shutdown order on kindergartens and elementary schools in Gangnam and Seocho districts and give school principals authority to decide whether to suspend classes or not.

Cho Hi-yeon, superintendent of Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, said the decision came as parents appeared less anxious about MERS.

In the face of parents’ demands, Cho ordered the suspension of classes in the two districts in southern Seoul after it was revealed that a MERS-infected doctor spent four days in the area before being quarantined.

By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)
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