File Photo: South Korean hospital workers set a separated emergency center for MERS cases at the National Medical Center in Seoul. (AFP Photo)
Seoul, South Korea:
South Korea reported three more MERS deaths today, bringing the number of fatalities to 23 and amplifying fears authorities do not have the virus outbreak under control after the WHO criticised their response.
Three more cases of the virus were also confirmed today, despite authorities' claims earlier in the week that South Korea had weathered the worst of the crisis.
The number of infections now stands at 165, in what is the largest outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outside Saudi Arabia.
Of those cases, 24 people have been cured and released from hospital but 17 are in an unstable condition and further fatalities are feared.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said Wednesday the South Korean outbreak was a "wake-up call" and that a lack of awareness about the virus among health workers and the public was a major contributing factor to its rapid spread.
MERS patients had been kept in crowded emergency rooms for long periods, it said, and the practice of "doctor shopping", visiting multiple hospitals for second and third opinions, was also a contributing factor.
The custom of many visitors and family members staying with infected patients in their hospital rooms also facilitated the spread of the virus, the WHO's emergency committee meeting in Geneva found.
The number of new infections in South Korea had fallen steadily until Tuesday, when the health ministry said it was cautiously optimistic the worst was over, but eight new cases reported Wednesday dashed those hopes.
The ministry also said Wednesday it was braced for new cases to "occur en masse in hospitals" other than the Samsung Medical Centre in Seoul, which is considered the epicentre of the outbreak with about half of confirmed cases originating there.