South Korea Says Most MERS Patients Got Virus at Same Hospital

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A hospital worker at a quarantine tent
A hospital worker at a quarantine tent for people who could be infected with the MERS virus, in Seoul. Photographer: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

South Korea’s health ministry said most patients with the Middle East respiratory syndrome contracted the virus at the same hospital south of Seoul, seeking to calm residents who had begun to avoid hospitals on contagion fears.

South Korea announced five more MERS patients and one more death on Friday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 41. A week into a developing public health crisis that has caused more than 1,100 school closures and more than 1,600 people to be quarantined, the government disclosed one hospital where the virus was spread after its delays had drawn criticism and contributed to panic.

Thirty of the 41 patients contracted MERS at the Pyeongtaek St. Mary’s Hospital, Health Minister Moon Hyung Pyo said at a televised briefing today.

Choi Bo Youl, a medical professor at Seoul’s Hanyang University who spoke at the same briefing, said he found no ventilation openings and exhaust pipes in the wards at the Pyeongtaek hospital, and windows were small. There were only air conditioners, and he said he suspected the virus spread further when air blew into the wards. The hospital couldn’t immediately be reached for comment, and its website showed that it has been closed since May 29.

Concerns about the widening reach of the virus have hit the tourism industry, driving down shares of travel companies in recent days. The government has already faced criticism for failing to contain the virus, after a South Korean man supposedly under medical surveillance traveled from Seoul to China and was diagnosed as that country’s first MERS case. That patient also traveled through Hong Kong.

Falling Approval

President Park Geun Hye’s approval rating dropped to 34 percent from 40 percent over the government’s handling of the MERS outbreak, the lowest since April, Gallup Korea said today.

South Korea and the World Health Organization will form a joint mission team on MERS that will include experts in virus research and infection management, according to an e-mailed statement from the health ministry.

A coronavirus from the Arabian peninsula, MERS has infected more than 1,100 people and killed more than 400 worldwide, with most in the Middle East. The virus can lead to severe illness including respiratory failure, or even septic shock. There is no vaccine or cure.

South Korea plans to provide North Korea with thermal imaging cameras to help prevent the spread of MERS across the border, Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong Cheol said Friday at a briefing. Hundreds of South Koreans work in a jointly run factory complex in the North Korean border city of Gaeseong, employing more than 50,000 local staff.

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