South Korea has announced it will set up designated clinics in all major cities to treat Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), as President Park Geun-hye postponed a planned trip to the US amid growing public alarm over the outbreak.
As the death toll rose to nine and the number of confirmed cases of MERS rose to 108 on Wednesday, Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from Seoul, said a deputy prime minister told people with MERS symptoms to not present themselves at hospital.
Instead, they were told to contact authorities.
Our correspondent said the outbreak had spread “very much from hospital to hospital”, with 47 of the 108 cases now confirmed to have been contracted at Seoul’s Samsung Medical Center.
“That is very much the epicentre of the disease so far,” our correspondent said.
“In every metropolitan area in South Korea there will be a designated clinic set aside for anyone suspected or confirmed to have the virus.”
As the country reviewed its response to the outbreak as part of a joint mission with the World Health Organization, its health ministry also urged the government to reopen schools.
Nearly 2,500 schools have been closed over fear of a MERS outbreak.
“Strong consideration should be given to reopening schools, as schools have not been linked to transmission of (the MERS virus) in the Republic of Korea or elsewhere,” the mission said.
The two latest victims, a 62-year-old man with cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer, and a 75-year-old woman with multiple myeloma, both followed a pattern with MERS victims, in that they had pre-existing medical conditions.
The number of people who were exposed to patients and have been placed under quarantine had risen to 3,500, authorities also announced on Wednesday.
The moves came as Taiwan joined Hong Kong and Macau in issuing alerts against travel to South Korea.
Health Minister Moon Hyung-pyo told politicians earlier this week that experts believed the outbreak may have peaked but the next several days would be critical in determining if the government had successfully contained the outbreak.
Because the virus’ incubation period is estimated at five to six days, extending up to about two weeks, experts believe there will not be any more cases directly infected by the first patient.
Authorities say the first MERS patient, a 68-year-old man, did not reveal he had travelled to Saudi Arabia to doctors until he arrived at the Seoul-based Samsung Medical Center after being treated at three other hospitals, including St Mary’s Hospital in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul.
The initial patient was eventually isolated on May 20 after doctors at Samsung, where the man ended up, suspected he had MERS and alerted the government.
Meanwhile, President Park’s administration came under fire for its alleged insufficient response to the outbreak, forcing her to delay her June 14 visit to the US.
Park’s approval ratings have dived as critics accused her administration and health officials of responding slowly 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.