South Korea reports 15th death from Mers, 7 new cases; hospital suspends operations

Passengers wearing masks to prevent contracting Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) look out from a subway train in Seoul, South Korea, on June 12, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 
Passengers wearing masks to prevent contracting Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) look out from a subway train in Seoul, South Korea, on June 12, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 

SEOUL (AFP/REUTERS) - South Korea reported Sunday seven new cases of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) virus in an outbreak that has killed 15 people, as one citizen was hospitalised in Slovakia after being suspected of carrying the disease there and a hard-hit Seoul hospital suspended operations to prevent further spread.

The seven new cases put the total number of infections of Mers in South Korea at 145, the Health Ministry said on Sunday.

The latest fatality was a 62-year-old man who died on Sunday afternoon in the southern port city of Busan, the city council said. He was diagnosed on June 7 after being infected in Samsung Medical Centre in Seoul - a major hospital and the epicentre of more than 70 cases.

Three of the new cases were infected in Samsung Medical Centre in Seoul, one of the country's largest hospitals where more than 70 people have contracted the virus, it said.

Among them was a paramedic who helped transport a Mers patient to Samsung hospital on June 7. On Saturday, the authorities announced that the ambulance driver also involved in transporting the patient - who died three days later - had also been infected.

One of the other new patients was infected in the central city of Daejeon and another in the city of Hwaseong, about 43km south of Seoul.

The ministry said 10 patients so far had recovered and been released from hospital.

In order to prevent further infections among patients and medical staff, Samsung hospital on Sunday temporarily suspended most of its operations.

It will stop treating outpatients, admitting new patients, or performing surgeries that are not deemed urgent, hospital president Song Jae Hoon told reporters.

No visitors will be allowed, he said, adding he would decide on June 24 whether or not to continue the partial suspension.

"We offer our deep apology and express regret to all of our patients who were infected here and those placed under quarantine," he said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called an emergency meeting for Tuesday on South Korea's "large and complex"outbreak of Mers, the biggest outside Saudi Arabia, where it was first identified in humans in 2012.

The number of people who came into contact with patients and were put under quarantine - either at state facilities or at home - rose Sunday 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 man reportedly arrived in Slovakia on June 3 and works for a subcontractor of Seoul carmaker Kia, which runs a plant in the central European country.

There is no vaccine or cure for Mers, which, according to WHO data, has a fatality rate of around 35 per cent.

The outbreak in the South began when a 68-year-old man was diagnosed on May 20 after a trip to Saudi Arabia.

The virus since then has been spreading at an unusually fast pace, sparking widespread alarm in the Asia's fourth-largest economy.

A team of WHO experts who visited Seoul warned that the outbreak in the South was "large and complex" and more cases should be expected.

But it also said it had found no evidence of transmission of the virus in communities outside hospitals.

The outbreak also sparked alarm elsewhere in Asia including Hong Kong, which advised last week its citizens to avoid non-essential travel to South Korea.

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