South Korea reports first two deaths from Mers; some tour groups cancel trips

A Chinese tourist wearing a mask to prevent contracting Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) tours the Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, South Korea, on June 1, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 
A Chinese tourist wearing a mask to prevent contracting Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) tours the Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, South Korea, on June 1, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 

SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korea on Tuesday reported the first two deaths from an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) that has affected 25 people in two weeks, as officials scrambled to contain the outbreak.

A 58-year-old woman, who had contact with South Korea's first patient, died of acute respiratory failure on Monday, the Health Ministry said. A 71-year-old man who had been on respiratory support with a history of kidney ailments also died.

The ministry reported new cases on Tuesday, bringing the total to 25. South Korea now has the third highest number of cases after Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Some tour agencies have started seeing overseas groups cancelling trips to South Korea, Yonhap news agency said, with a group of 300 Chinese scrapping a visit this week.

South Korean authorities were considering a ban on overseas travel for the nearly 700 people isolated for possible infection.

South Korea's Hyundai Motor, the world's fifth-biggest automaker together with affiliate Kia Motors, has asked employees to avoid travelling to the Middle East over concerns about Mers, a company spokesman said.

"As this is a matter directly linked to the public's lives and safety, we will bring together all our health-related capabilities now and work to dissolve anxiety and concerns quickly," said Choi Kyung Hwan, the country's finance minister and deputy prime minister.

Choi said the credibility of the government was at stake, after criticism grew against authorities for failing to contain the spread of the virus after the first patient's symptoms were initially overlooked.

First identified in humans in 2012, Mers is caused by a coronavirus from the same family as the one that triggered China's deadly 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars). There is no cure or vaccine.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said last week that there had been no sustained human-to-human spread in South Korea, and that it was not recommending screening of passengers or the imposition of travel or trade restrictions.

WHO put the total number of cases globally at 1,154, with at least 431 related deaths.

China last week reported its first Mers case. A South Korean man who tested positive after breaking a voluntary house quarantine last week, flying to Hong Kong and then travelling to mainland China.

Chinese health authorities have said it was likely the disease would spread as the infected South Korean patient had taken a bus from Hong Kong, crossed a busy border checkpoint and stayed in a hotel before being taken to a hospital.

Shares in South Korea's two biggest airlines, Korean Air Lines Co Ltd and Asiana Airlines Inc were flat on Tuesday, buoyed by lower oil prices, after dropping sharply on Monday, although other tourism-relates stocks fell, with Hotel Shilla Co Ltd down 2.5 per cent.

Several health care related stocks including GeneOne Life Science Inc continued to surge.