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(3rd LD) S. Korea confirms 11th death from MERS

All Headlines 15:27 June 12, 2015

(ATTN: COMBINES with a previously sent story 'MERS-overseas concerns'; UPDATES with additional information in paras 13-19; ADDS photos)

SEJONG, June 12 (Yonhap) -- South Korea confirmed its 11th death from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) on Friday, while reporting four new cases that brought the number of people diagnosed with the disease here to 126.

A 72-year-old female died earlier in the day while undergoing treatment at a hospital in North Jeolla Province, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

She was diagnosed June 4 after spending eight days in a hospital in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, that had treated the country's first MERS patient in mid-May. She had been in a coma for the past five days, according to ministry officials.

The total number of people diagnosed with the potentially deadly disease came to 126 as the country reported an additional four cases.

The four new patients were infected while visiting hospitals affected by MERS.

All 126 confirmed cases so far have occurred in hospitals, meaning the disease has not infiltrated into the daily lives of people, the ministry said.

Still, over 3,800 people were in isolation as of Thursday for possible infection after coming in close contact with a MERS patient or visiting one of the hospitals affected by the viral respiratory illness.

The number, however, dropped to 3,680 on Friday, marking the first drop since the outbreak was initially confirmed on May 20.

The fall came as a growing number of people previously isolated for possible infection are being released after testing negative for MERS or developing no symptoms over the maximum incubation period of 14 days, according to ministry officials.

As of Friday, 1,249 people have been released from isolation.

The officials said the drop may also be a sign that the spread of the disease is now on the wane.

They said the upcoming weekend may become a turning point in the battle against MERS as the rise in the number of newly infected people has also slowed to four on Friday from 14 on the previous day.

South Korea's Acting Prime Minister Choi Kyung-hwan sought to keep the foreign community here calm and well-informed.

"Taking into account South Korea's advanced medical service sector and high level of expertise of its health professions, there is no doubt that the current MERS situation will be contained," he said in a meeting with foreign diplomats and business leaders in Seoul.

Signs that the outbreak is being brought under control include the lifting of a mandatory shutdown on schools in two affluent districts of Seoul.

The order for a temporary shutdown was issued at the start of this week after a MERS-infected doctor was found to have crisscrossed the two -- Seocho and Gangnam -- districts before his diagnosis.

The order had affected 69 kindergartens and 57 elementary schools.

Starting next week, the schools' own principals will be allowed to decide whether to cancel classes, Seoul's Superintendent Cho Hee-yeon said.

The move apparently came as hospitals have been identified as the only source of infection so far. The government has been updating daily a list of hospitals and clinics affected by MERS, which was at 55 facilities as of Thursday.

To help small and medium-sized hospitals suffering from a shutdown or loss of patients, the government said it will provide emergency relief funds.

The government earlier said it will provide up to 400 billion won (US$360 million) in such funds for businesses and communities affected by MERS.

MERS is a viral respiratory illness that is fairly new to humans with the first case reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Some 1,100 cases have since been reported in about 20 countries, mostly in and around the Middle East.

bdk@yna.co.kr
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