(ATTN: UPDATES with comments by political parties and education minister)
SEOUL, June 5 (Yonhap) -- President Park Geun-hye postponed a unification committee meeting to focus on containing the outbreak of the MERS virus, Cheong Wa Dae said Friday, underscoring the urgency in tackling the virus that has sparked a widespread public scare across the country.
"Currently, MERS is a top priority," presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook told reporters.
His comments came hours after an additional man died from MERS on Thursday to bring the total number of deaths from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) to four.
The Ministry for Health and Welfare reported five new cases Friday, raising the total to 41.
The presidential office said it is deeply concerned about rising public anxiety following an announcement by Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon late Thursday that a Seoul doctor came into contact with more than 1,000 citizens before he was confirmed as a MERS patient.
Deputy Prime Minister Hwang Woo-yea, who doubles as education minister, called on the government to strengthen the quarantine and make utmost efforts to allay public concerns over the MERS virus.
The ruling Saenuri Party also called for concerted efforts by the government and parliament to fight the MERS crisis.
Floor leader Yoo Seong-min asked the government to consider releasing information at a proper level and strengthening the quarantine, saying MERS has put the country in a national crisis situation.
Still, he did not elaborate on whether the government should name hospitals where people infected with the virus have been placed in quarantine.
Meanwhile, Moon Jae-in, head of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, pressed Park to take the lead in containing the virus.
Medical experts have said the virus cannot be spread to people unless they come into close contact with MERS patients or medical staff who treated them.
The experts have said it does not make sense for schools to cancel classes.
Still, more than 1,160 schools had canceled classes across the country as a precaution as of 9 a.m. The vast majority of the total, or 764 schools, are in Gyeonggi Province, where the first case of MERS in South Korea was reported, according to the Ministry of Education.
MERS is a viral respiratory illness that is new to humans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. It was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since spread to several other countries.
There currently is no vaccine or treatment for the disease.
Most people infected with MERS develop severe acute respiratory illness, including fever, cough and shortness of breath. Many of them have died.
BTS dazzles 25,000 fans in Busan
Busan buzzing with excitement over BTS concerts
S. Koreans bid farewell to ex-first lady Lee Hee-ho
(U20 World Cup) Top Asian football official hails S. Korea historic run to final
(News Focus) Going beyond repackaging free trade policy, Seoul also looks to expand FTA territory
(3rd LD) 2 N.K. fishermen express desire to defect, 2 others sent back
(LEAD) White House on Xi's N.K. visit: Focus is on denuclearization
(2nd LD) Cheong Wa Dae says inter-Korean summit is not a must before G-20
N.K. media reports on 'Parasite' popularity, highlights downside of capitalism
(LEAD) Xi vows to play greater role in resolving Korean Peninsula issues