Koreans told to 'rest easy' over Mers

In a file photo taken on June 17, 2015, South Korean workers spray antiseptic solution at the customs, immigration and quarantine office of Gimpo international airport in Seoul.
In a file photo taken on June 17, 2015, South Korean workers spray antiseptic solution at the customs, immigration and quarantine office of Gimpo international airport in Seoul.PHOTO: AFP

Government says danger has now passed, with no new cases of virus since July 4

SEOUL • South Korea has declared it is effectively out of danger from Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers). This comes more than two months after the first case was reported and began spreading in hospitals to kill 36 people.

The outbreak grew to become the largest outside Saudi Arabia, infecting 186 people and, at its peak, putting nearly 17,000 in quarantine. It was traced to a man who returned from a business trip to the Middle East in May.

"It is the assessment of the government and the medical community that the public can rest easy," Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn said yesterday.

Twelve people remain hospitalised and under treatment for Mers, although only one is still testing positive for the virus, the Health Ministry said, adding that no new cases have been reported since July 4. The virus has an incubation period of about two weeks.

The outbreak dealt a major blow to an already-weakened South Korean economy, knocking second-quarter growth to its worst in more than six years as it closed thousands of schools, kept consumers at home and scared away tourists.

The schools have reopened and shoppers are back in the stores, but officials are keen to repair the lingering damage to sentiment.

Seoul plans to spend up to 30 billion won (S$35 million) on campaigns to lure back travellers, including free promotional tours and concerts by big-name K-pop stars.

The government has also announced a 22-trillion-won stimulus package, much of which is aimed at supporting businesses hurt by the Mers crisis.

Earlier this month, the Bank of Korea cut its 2015 economic growth forecast for the third time this year, from 3.1 per cent to 2.8 per cent.

Citing sluggish exports and weak domestic consumption - exacerbated by the Mers outbreak - the central bank has kept its benchmark interest rate unchanged at a record low of 1.5 per cent.

Mers is linked to the same family of coronaviruses that triggered a deadly outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003.

Mr Hwang said it was too early to declare the outbreak over, but urged the public to return to normal daily life. A Health Ministry official said: "We still have many arrivals from the Middle East, so there is always a possibility that new patients can come in."

Screening stations in airports will continue to operate.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2015, with the headline 'Koreans told to 'rest easy' over Mers'. Print Edition | Subscribe