South Korean officials closed over 700 schools to prevent MERS - and panic - from spreading. Human infections occurred before preventive measures were put in place, the WHO has said.
In the largest outbreak of MERS outside of Saudi Arabia, three deaths and six additional cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) were confirmed on Thursday by health authorities in South Korea, bringing the total number of infections in the country to 36 since the first case two weeks ago.
Growing concern of a wider outbreak led South Korean authorities to close more than 700 schools and separate over 1,500 people from the general public with measures ranging from being told to stay home to quarantine at medical facilities.
An increasing number of passengers on Seoul's public transportation have been reported to be wearing protective masks while the national government's MERS hotline took more than 3,000 calls on Wednesday. Some 7,000 tourists - mainly from China and Taiwan - have canceled planned tours of South Korea amid fears of infection.
Slow to ID patient zero
President Park Geun-hye's government has come under criticism for failing to respond to the outbreak faster. The president on Wednesday told health officials that "everything must be done to stop any further spread."
It took officials several days to diagnose the first patient, a 68-year-old man who returned from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and sought treatment for a cough and fever.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said it expected more infections in South Korea, but added there was "no evidence of sustained transmission in the community" and called on health care providers to take preventative steps to avoid infection
North Korea has also expressed it fear of MERS crossing the border and requested Seoul provide heat-sensing cameras at the Kaesong industrial complex, which is operated jointly by the North and South. About 500 South Koreans travel daily to the site, located 10 kilometers (six miles) inside North Korea, that employs some 53,000 North Koreans.
South Korea had provided the cameras during the height of the Ebola outbreak to ease North Korean fears of that virus spreading. Pyongyang often reacts quickly to reports of contagious infections and imposed a travel ban on incoming foreign tourists for five months during the Ebola scare.
MERS, an infection caused by a coronavirus of the same family as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) has infected over 1,175 people, with at least 442 deaths, according to WHO statistics.
While more than 20 countries have reported MERS cases, most have been in Saudi Arabia. There is no known cure or vaccine to fight the virus. MERS spreads slower than SARS, which emerged in 2002-2003 and killed about 800 people, but it has a far higher death rate, at about 38 percent to date.
sms/msh (AFP, Reuters, dpa)