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June 11, 2015

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SKorea president postpones visit to US as 2 more die from MERS

A JOINT South Korean-World Health Organization mission studying the current outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome yesterday recommended that schools be reopened, as they were unlikely to spread the disease, just as school boards recommended more be shut.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s health ministry said two more people had died from MERS as it announced 13 new cases, lifting the total number of patients to 108 and prompting President Park Geun-hye to postpone a visit to the United States.

Park had been due to leave for her country’s closest ally on Sunday but her office said the coming week would be a “watershed” for the country’s response to the disease.

The outbreak, the largest outside Saudi Arabia, has fueled public anxiety and hit spending, with thousands in quarantine and the number of schools closing rising to 2,474, including 22 universities. Many people on the streets are wearing face masks, public transport is being disinfected and attendance at cinemas and baseball games has tumbled.

But the joint mission, which began its work on Tuesday, urged the government to consider reopening schools as it said: “Schools have not been linked to the transmission of the virus in South Korea or elsewhere.”

The recommendation came as the school boards of Seoul and surrounding Gyeonggi Province announced the extension of existing school closures through Friday and recommended more to shut.

Some countries around the region have issued advisories against travel to South Korea or stepped up screening of inbound passengers, dealing a setback to a tourism sector that had been a bright spot for the South Korean economy.

The main Incheon airport said the number of passenger arrivals was down sharply at the start of the week.

Taiwan’s two biggest airlines are temporarily cutting flights to South Korea by nearly half. Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd said it had seen a drop in bookings.

WHO has not recommended any curbs on travel or trade.

MERS has also taken its toll on high street shopping, with department store sales falling 25 percent in the first week of June compared with an average of the first two weeks of May, government data showed. Sales at discount stores fell 7.2 percent, but online purchases rose slightly.

Cinema ticket sales and amusement park entries were down by more than half.

Deputy Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan advised against unnecessary fear and urged the public to get on with their daily lives and continue to spend.

The latest two deaths, both cancer patients, bring the number of fatalities to nine. All of those who died had been suffering serious ailments before testing positive for MERS, the health ministry said.

South Korea’s infections have all been traced to a man who developed MERS after returning from a trip to the Middle East in early May and who came into contact with others before being diagnosed.

All subsequent infections, including the 13 announced yesterday, have been linked to health facilities, the ministry said.

The number of people who may have been in contact with MERS patients and were now in quarantine has risen to 3,439, the ministry said. South Korea’s new cases bring the total number of MERS cases globally to 1,257, with at least 448 related deaths.


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