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(4th LD) S. Korea reports seventh MERS death, 8 new cases

All Headlines 14:24 June 09, 2015

(ATTN: UPDATES with additional information, minor changes in paras 9, 21-24)

SEJONG, June 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korea confirmed another death from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and reported eight new cases Tuesday, raising the number of infections to 95.

The latest fatality, the seventh since the country first reported the outbreak on May 20, was a 68-year-old woman who had already been suffering from chronic heart conditions, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

She was hospitalized at Seoul's Samsung Medical Center on May 27-28, during which she came in close contact with a MERS patient.

The total number of people diagnosed with the disease came to 95 as the country confirmed eight new cases.

All eight new patients were infected after coming in close contact with those previously diagnosed at five hospitals, including Asan Medical Center, one of the largest hospitals in the capital.

As of Tuesday morning, 2,892 people, including family members of those diagnosed, were in isolation for possible infection from coming into close contact with a MERS patient, according to the ministry.

The health ministry said it will fully fund the cost of diagnosis and treatment for those who have contracted the disease, as well as those in quarantine as suspected cases.

The ministry again warned against groundless fears, noting nearly two-thirds of those diagnosed with the disease had existing health conditions while all of those who have died from the disease had existing illnesses or other health problems.

Out of the 95 people diagnosed so far, nine are in unstable condition, the health ministry said.

Two people diagnosed with the disease have been released after making complete recoveries.

The number will soon reach three as another patient was set to be discharged from the hospital later in the day, the ministry said.

So far, all infections have occurred at hospitals where at least one MERS patient had visited or stayed for treatment -- the reason the government believes the disease can still be contained.

To help prevent the disease from spreading further, the government has released the names of all hospitals affected by the disease, which stood at 29 as of late Monday.

Government officials said the number of new infections, along with the number of patients, may begin to dwindle this week.

"The government has decided to switch to an all-out response system as if it was seeking to eliminate the disease this very week," acting Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan said in a meeting with officials over the outbreak, adding he will daily attend the emergency meetings until the disease is eliminated.

"This week may be very crucial to overcoming MERS. The government will mobilize all available resources and necessary budget to help eradicate the disease at the earliest date possible," said Choi, who is also the country's finance minister.

MERS is a viral respiratory illness that was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. The disease had a very high fatality rate of over 40 percent before the outbreak in South Korea, according to the health ministry. Currently, the disease has a fatality rate of around 8 percent here.

Still, health officials here are struggling to find out the reasons for what they have called the unusually fast and wide spreading of the disease, which had only some 1,100 confirmed cases throughout the world before the outbreak here.

With 95 confirmed cases, South Korea now has the second-largest number of people diagnosed with the disease after Saudi Arabia, which has reported over 1,000 cases since it reported the world's first case in 2012.

A team of medical experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) was here to help explain the reason.

The team, together with South Korean officials, was part of a joint response team, which began its four-day investigation earlier in the day with a courtesy call on Vice Health Minister Chang Ok-ju.

Keiji Fukuda, an assistant director-general of the WHO jointly leading the investigation team here, said the country has responded adequately to the outbreak of MERS.

The team's investigation will include visits to MERS-affected hospitals and state-designated quarantine centers to help identify any uniqueness in the MERS coronavirus found here that may explain the fast spreading of the disease.

In a recent interview with Yonhap, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan noted the country's traditional culture of family members caring for their loved ones in hospitals or at home may have been a factor driving the spread of MERS.

bdk@yna.co.kr
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