South Korea reports 8 new Mers cases, bringing total to 162

A worker in full protective gear disinfects the interior of a karaoke establishment in Seoul, South Korea.
A worker in full protective gear disinfects the interior of a karaoke establishment in Seoul, South Korea.REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea reported eight new cases of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) virus on Wednesday, including four at a hospital at the centre of the outbreak, as questions grow over authorities' ability to contain the disease that has killed 19 people in less than a month.

The eight patients, whose ages range from 31 to 79 years old, push the total number of infections from Mers up to 162, the Health Ministry said.

No new fatalities have been reported, it added.

The outbreak started on May 20 when a 68-year-old man was diagnosed after returning from a trip to Saudi Arabia.

Since then the virus has spread at an unusually rapid pace, sparking widespread public alarm over what has become the largest outbreak outside Saudi Arabia.

The eight new South Korean cases include four who were infected at Samsung Medical Centre in Seoul - the epicentre of the outbreak where nearly 80 patients, visitors and medical staff have contracted the virus.

A staff member at the hospital is also among the new cases, though the health ministry said it was unclear where the 33-year-old had been infected.

Staff members at two other hospitals were also diagnosed, as well as a patient in the city of Hwaseong.

More than 5,000 people who were directly or indirectly exposed to the patients have been placed under quarantine in state facilities or at home.

There is no vaccine for Mers, which has a mortality rate of 35 percent, according to the World Health Organisation.

In Saudi Arabia, more than 950 people have been infected and 412 died from the potentially deadly virus.