South Korean president postpones US visit amid Mers outbreak

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korean President Park Geun Hye has postponed a planned trip to the US, her spokesman said on Wednesday, amid growing public alarm over the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) outbreak which has now claimed nine lives.

The decision to delay the June 14-18 visit came after Park's administration came under fire for what critics say has been an insufficient response to the crisis.

"President Park decided to postpone the US trip in order to help end the outbreak of Mers and take care of public safety," her senior press secretary Kim Sung Woo told reporters. "We asked for understanding from the US government and both nations agreed to reschedule the trip at the earliest convenience," he said.

Two new deaths and 13 new cases were confirmed on Wednesday, bringing the total number of deaths to nine and the number of infections to 108 in the outbreak, the health ministry said.

The first infected patient was diagnosed on May 20 after a trip to Saudi Arabia. The 68-year-old man spread the germs, visiting four medical facilities and infecting other patients and health care workers. Since then, nearly 3,500 people who were exposed to patients have been placed under quarantine of varying degrees.

Park's approval ratings have taken a dive as critics accused her administration and health officials of responding too slowly to the crisis. A new survey by the polling agency Realmeter showed on Wednesday that more than half of South Koreans opposed Park's planned trip to the
US, a major ally.

The two latest fatalities were a 75-year-old woman and a 62-year-old man, victims of the largest outbreak of the virus outside Saudi Arabia.

The pair contracted the virus at Samsung Medical Centre, a major hospital in southern Seoul. It has seen 47 infections, the highest number at any single health facility, as well as 10 of the 13 new patients reported Wednesday.

The three other new victims had their diagnoses confirmed at three different hospitals, including two in the central city of Daejeon and one near a southern suburb of Seoul.

- Hospital infections -

All the infections, however, were limited to hospitals, and health authorities stressed that the outbreak had not spread to communities outside hospital settings.

The nine dead had pre-existing health conditions, the ministry said, adding that four patients so far have recovered and were released from hospital.

As the number of cases and deaths has risen and public alarm escalated, nearly 2,500 schools - mostly in Seoul and surrounding Gyeonggi province - were closed on Wednesday, up 300 from the previous day.

Local businesses including shopping malls, movie theatres and theme parks reported a sharp drop in sales as people shunned crowded public venues.

Acting Prime Minister Choi Kyung Hwan called for cooperation from the public in fighting the virus and promised more support for thousands who are quarantined at home.

"Please refrain from excessive responses such as avoiding shopping trips... and continue your normal daily activities," he said during a news conference on Wednesday. "We will provide all possible support for those quarantined at home including cash aid and essential necessities," Choi said.

On Wednesday, health officials also launched nationwide screening of sick persons with pneumonia, as Mers patients often develop pneumonia.

The virus is considered a deadlier but less infectious cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), which killed hundreds of people when it appeared in Asia in 2003.

There is no vaccine or cure for Mers which, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) data, has a fatality rate of around 35 per cent. A WHO team of experts and South Korean health authorities are jointly investigating the outbreak.

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