Hundreds of schools were closed in South Korea on Thursday as officials struggled to ease growing panic over an outbreak of the MERS virus that has infected 36 people, killed three and caused thousands to cancel travel plans.
More than 900 schools — from kindergartens to colleges — have now shut their gates in response to public fears over what has become the largest outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outside Saudi Arabia.
Five more cases were confirmed on Thursday, bringing the total number of known infections to 35, the health ministry said. The first case — reported on May 20 — was of a 68-year old man diagnosed after a trip to Saudi Arabia.
The third, on Thursday, was an 82-year-old man diagnosed with the MERS virus in a posthumous test after he died in hospital on Wednesday night, the health ministry said in a statement.
While around 160 were isolated at state-designated facilities, most were told to stay home and strictly limit their interactions with other people.
In Seoul, growing public concern has been reflected in the daily increase in the number of commuters wearing face masks on buses and subways. The government’s MERS hotline took more than 3,000 calls on Wednesday. This panic spread among the people, sales of surgical masks surged and airlines announced “intensified sanitising operations".
However, the World Health Organisation has not recommended travel curbs, but about 7,000 people from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan had cancelled trips to South Korea as of June 2, a spokesman for the Korea Tourism Organisation said.