WHO Says MERS Spread Slowing as South Korea Reports 14th Death

The spread of Middle East respiratory syndrome in South Korea is slowing thanks to effective control measures, the World Health Organization said Saturday, as the nation reported 12 new patients and a 14th death from the virus.

South Korea has confirmed 138 MERS infections since the outbreak began a month ago. A 67-year-old woman suffering from a thyroid problem and high blood pressure died Saturday after contracting the virus late last month, the health ministry said in an e-mailed statement.

“This is creating the image that the outbreak is getting bigger and bigger,” Keiji Fukuda, assistant director­general of WHO, said at a televised news conference in Sejong city. “What we see is that it appears that there are fewer new infections, and these are going down.”

The outbreak led President Park Geun Hye to postpone a U.S. trip to focus on battling the disease. Thousands of people have been quarantined as officials stepped up efforts to reassure the public that the outbreak was under control and to limit economic damage.

So far nearly all MERS cases have been contained in hospitals. Still, thousands have canceled trips to the country and many South Koreans are avoiding malls and restaurants for fear of the disease, a threat to consumer spending and demand.

On Thursday the Bank of Korea lowered its key rate to a record 1.5 percent, calling MERS “an imminent risk to consumption.” Goldman Sachs on Tuesday cut its 2015 growth forecast for South Korea to 2.8 percent from 3.3 percent, partly because of the potential impact of the disease. Morgan Stanley said Monday MERS could slow economic growth by as much as 0.8 of a percentage point this year.

Doctor Shopping

South Koreans’ tendency to “shop” for doctors by visiting multiple hospitals has contributed to the spread of MERS, along with overcrowded emergency rooms and a culture of frequent family visits to hospitalized patients, Fukuda said.

“What they are doing is basically spreading the infection,” he said. “They are running into more people and it creates more chances for the infection to go to other people.”

The government has faced criticism for failing to contain the virus. Park’s approval rating slid to 33 percent from 40 percent in the last two weeks, according to Gallup Korea.

The MERS outbreak hit just weeks after the first anniversary of the Sewol tragedy, which revived public grief over the government’s handling of a disaster in which more than 300 people, mostly high-school students, died when a ferry capsized.

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

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