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South Korea announces first two MERS deaths

Two people have died in South Korea from the MERS respiratory illness, in the largest ever outbreak outside of the Middle East. A total of 682 people who may have been exposed to the virus are under observation.

The South Korean Health Ministry announced on Tuesday that two people had died from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the first fatalities in that country from an outbreak that has struck 25 people in two weeks.

A 58-year-old woman who had contact with South Korea's first confirmed case of the disease died from respiratory failure on Monday, with follow-up tests coming back positive for MERS. Her death follows that of a 71-year-old man several days ago.

The Health Ministry said that a total of 682 people who may have been exposed to the disease are currently under observation.

MERS is known as a deadlier but less contagious relative of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which claimed hundreds of lives when it appeared in Asia in 2003.

South Korea now has

the highest number of cases after Saudi Arabia

and the United Arab Emirates. The virus has already killed 400 people in Saudi Arabia since first appearing there in 2012.

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye has criticized health officials for their "insufficient" initial response, including allowing a 44-year-old man to travel to China despite warnings from doctors. The man's father had been diagnosed with the virus ahead of the trip, and the businessman was confirmed Friday to have been infected himself. He is being held under quarantine in the Chinese city of Huizhou.

The Asian outbreak has been traced to a 68-year-old man who was diagnosed with MERS following a trip to Saudi Arabia. The virus has no known cure or vaccine.

es/cmk (AFP, Reuters)

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