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Asia

MERS cases in South Korea rise to 87, with six deaths

Government of President Park Geun-hye has come under fire for underestimating the scale of a disease that has begun to spread outside the capital, causing concern across the nation.

Health authorities in South Korea confirmed on Monday that they were dealing with 87 cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), with the latest person admitted to hospital a teenager in Seoul. The disease has spread rapidly, causing six deaths, with 23 new cases reported on Monday alone, and there are fears that the outbreak has still not peaked.

South Korea has become the country with the second-largest number of MERS cases in the world, behind Saudi Arabia, which has reported 1,026 infections to date. Some 2,361 people are quarantined in South Korea, up 495 from Saturday.

The government of President Park Geun-hye has claimed that the worst of the crisis may be over, with Moon Hyung-pyo, the health minister, telling reporters in Seoul on Monday that the disease may stop spreading before the end of the week.

Ready to raise alert level

Moon said the government was ready to raise its alert level to cope with a worsening public health crisis, but it was reluctant to lift the four-tier scale to "vigilance" because doing so "could affect the national image."

South Korean President Park Geun-hye delivers a speech during a ceremony marking Korean Memorial Day at the National Cemetery in Seoul June 6, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Jung Yeon-je/Pool)

President Park Geun-hye says the worst of the crisis may be over

He added that the outbreak had been confined to 24 medical facilities across the country and that the government was preparing to announce more support measures for people with the disease, including financial assistance.

But, in a frank admission of the government's failure to deal with the outbreak in its earliest stages, Moon apologized, adding, "I think the spread could have been ended much earlier if we had reacted more appropriately in the initial stages. I am very sorry for that."

Analysts believe the government severely under-estimated the potential damage the outbreak would have.

"Among ordinary people, the sense is a good deal more than just concern," Rah Jong-yil, South Korea's former ambassador to London and Tokyo, told DW.

"It has spread very rapidly and it appears to have got beyond the control of the government, which has not done a good job in organizing countermeasures against this epidemic," he said. "The government under-estimated the situation, but that may be because we have never been subjected to something like this before."

South Korea was affected by SARS in 2003 and there have been outbreaks of bird flu, although the number of incidents was smaller.

Scale of the problem

"The good thing is that the government finally appears to have grasped the scale of the problem and they are now mobilizing to bring all the healthcare assets they have to bear," Jong-yil said.

Daniel Pinkston, a Korea analyst with The International Crisis Group in Seoul, agreed that the government had been slow to react.

Speaking from a taxi driving through central Seoul - where the streets were far quieter than usual as people stayed at home and many schools were closed - Pinkston said it was difficult to control diseases that could now travel great distances rapidly thanks to the massive growth in air transportation, but that the government needed to be more transparent and open with the information about the outbreak from the beginning.

"It is, of course, a fine line between not doing enough and over-reacting and causing panic, but in this case I think the government failed to provide all the relevant information in a transparent and timely manner," he told DW.

A quarantine officer checks the body temperature of a passenger as they walk past a thermal imaging camera at Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea, June 2, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)

The spread of MERS in South Korea has caused concern in neighboring countries

Fears of panic

South Korea's health authorities initially declined to name the medical institutions that were treating MERS cases on the grounds that it would cause panic in the population or "damage the reputation" of those facilities. The result among a concerned population is that, fearing they might be exposed to the illness at a hospital, fewer people sought treatment for any ailment, worsening the public health situation, Pinkston said.

"My personal opinion is that people had a right to know what was going on and where they could go to get treated," he added. "And it is ironic because this all happened just days after the president honored 24 very brave doctors and nurses who went to Africa to help deal with the Ebola outbreak there."

The spread of MERS in South Korea has caused concern in neighboring countries, with health authorities in Hong Kong quarantining two travelers who it was feared were carrying the virus. Japan has also called for medical institutions to be ready to handle cases should an outbreak occur.

For Rah Jong-yil, the biggest concern has to be for North Korea, which is ill-equipped to deal with a significant outbreak of MERS should it get into the country.

"South Korea has already said it will share equipment with the North," he said. "There is a real possibility of a disaster there because there are some 50,000 North Korean workers in Saudi Arabia."