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MERS fears pose risks to South Korea's economy

Staff writer |
South Korea's battle with a rare viral outbreak entered a third week with a rising death toll and increasing concerns about the threat posed to the nation's economy.

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As consumers stay home and tourists cancel trips to South Korea because of concerns about Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, some economists say the outbreak could take another big bite out of the country's growth, which is already under pressure from sputtering exports.

After raising worries about the economy, President Park Geun-hye on Wednesday put off a planned trip to Washington to oversee efforts at home to tackle MERS.

Ms. Park was due to hold talks with U.S. President Barack Obama next week on unrelated issues, including the threat from North Korea. A spokeswoman for Ms. Park said the trip would be rescheduled.

"I urge citizens to refrain from excessively reacting to MERS for the sake of the economy," Ms. Park said on Tuesday.

Authorities said on Wednesday that two more people with MERS had died, taking the total to nine. The total number of infections stands at 122 after 14 new cases were reported early Thursday. The outbreak in South Korea is the largest outside of Saudi Arabia, where the virus was discovered in 2012.

More than 1,000 cases of MERS have been reported in the Middle East, the latest in Saudi Arabia earlier this month. The Korean MERS outbreak began with a South Korean man who visited the Middle East and was diagnosed with the virus on May 20.

While the infection rate continues to climb, health officials and experts say the outbreak is contained because the new cases are all among people already under quarantine.

Almost 3,000 people have been isolated in South Korea to prevent the spread of MERS. Officials also note that those who have died after contracting MERS are older people who had other serious ailments.

A group of experts from the World Health Organization currently advising the government on how to limit the spread of MERS on Wednesday urged authorities to strengthen infection-prevention measures.

"Things that may need to be improved are ensuring hand hygiene and reducing visitors to hospitals," said Margaret Harris, a communications officer for WHO.

Public concern in South Korea remains high over the virus. That appears to have hit consumer spending and travel as people opt to spend more time at home. In the first week of June, sales at department stores fell 16.5%, according to government data.

The concern has also hit tourism. The government says about 54,400 foreign tourists had canceled their trips to South Korea as of Monday since MERS was first confirmed. That represents around 7% of the total number of foreign visitors over an equivalent period last year.

In the Asia-Pacific region, only Hong Kong has advised against travel to South Korea. Other countries have recommended that travelers take precautions while in the country.

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