SEOUL - South Korea reported its 15th death from the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), as the growing outbreak that has now infected 145 people forced one of the nation's biggest hospitals to suspend most services.
A 62-year-old man died yesterday in the southern port city of Busan, the city council said. He was diagnosed on June 7 after being infected in Seoul's Samsung Medical Centre - the epicentre with over 70 cases.
The Health Ministry also confirmed seven new cases, including four from the Samsung hospital, bringing the total number of infections nationwide to 145.
Among the seven is a paramedic who accompanied a Mers patient to the hospital on June 7. On Saturday, the authorities announced that the ambulance driver involved in transporting the patient - who died three days later - had contracted the virus.
One of the other new patients was infected in the central city of Daejeon, and another in Hwaseong, 43km south of Seoul.
To prevent further infections among patients and medical staff, Samsung hospital temporarily suspended most operations.
It will stop treating outpatients, admitting new patients and performing non-urgent surgery, hospital president Song Jae Hoon told reporters yesterday.
"We offer our deep apology and express regret to all of our patients who were infected here and those placed under quarantine," Professor Song said.
The hospital, normally visited by over 8,000 patients a day, has come under fire in recent weeks for failing to stem the spread of the virus among its staff and patients. Two doctors and three nurses have been infected so far.
More than 400 patients, family members and medical staff who were directly or indirectly exposed to the infected ambulance driver have been quarantined, Prof Song said.
The overall number under quarantine - either at state facilities or at home - rose yesterday by more than 800 to 4,856.
As the outbreak continued to expand, a South Korean man thought to have contracted Mers was hospitalised in the Slovak capital Bratislava on Saturday.
The 38-year-old, who works for a subcontractor of Seoul carmaker Kia, reportedly arrived in Slovakia on June 3. The man did not appear to have had contact with patients or to have visited venues where infections were reported at home, South Korea's Foreign Ministry said yesterday.
He contacted the embassy in Slovakia on Saturday as he was developing symptoms such as fever, the ministry added.
The outbreak in South Korea - the largest outside Saudi Arabia - began when a 68-year-old man was diagnosed on May 20 after a trip to Saudi Arabia.
The outbreak has also sparked alarm elsewhere in Asia.
Hong Kong advised its citizens last week to avoid non-essential travel to South Korea, while North Korea vowed "watertight" measures to ward off the virus.
Xinhua news agency reported that Air China will cut the number of Beijing-Seoul flights to 21 a week from 24, while China Eastern Airlines will cut the number of its Kunming-Seoul flights from five to two weekly.