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South Korea says MERS outbreak may have peaked

New cases plummet to eight on Tuesday, while Hong Kong issues a red alert to limit nonessential travel to South Korea

South Korean officials said Tuesday that the country’s outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) may have peaked, while Hong Kong issued a red-alert advisory against nonessential travel to South Korea.

Eight new cases of MERS were reported Tuesday in South Korea — a sharp drop from 23 on Monday — but the number of closed schools grew to 2,208, including 20 universities.

“At this stage, to issue a clear message is something the Hong Kong government thinks is necessary,” Hong Kong's No. 2 official, Carrie Lam, told reporters just before the travel warning was posted.

A red alert, the second-highest outbound travel advisory on a three-point scale, is defined as a “significant threat,” according to the Hong Kong government, and means people should “adjust travel plans” and “avoid nonessential travel.”

Experts say the next several days will be critical to determining whether the South Korean government's belated efforts have successfully stymied a disease that has killed seven people and infected 95 in the country.

The biggest outbreak of MERS outside the region, where it was first seen in 2012, was introduced to South Korea last month by a 68-year-old man who had traveled to Saudi Arabia and nearby countries.

When he got sick after his return to South Korea, he visited several hospitals and clinics, where dozens of other patients and hospital workers were infected before officials determined he had MERS. Gradually, the government began isolating victims and quarantining those who had contacted them.

There has been widespread fear in South Korea of the poorly understood disease, which has no vaccine and as much as a 40 percent mortality rate. There also has been growing criticism over failures by health workers and the government to initially recognize and quickly contain the disease.

Although MERS spreads through close contact with sick people, not through the air, many people here have avoided going to crowded places like baseball parks and movie theaters. Travel agencies report a sharp increase in the number of foreigners canceling plans to visit South Korea.

The outbreak, however, has so far been contained in hospitals and there's no evidence, the U.N. health agency says, of "sustained transmission in the community."

Because the virus' incubation period is estimated at five to six days on average, extending up to about two weeks, experts believe there won't be any more cases directly infected by the first patient.

The maximum incubation period for those infected by the second “super-spreader“ ends around this Friday, experts said, which raises hopes that the outbreak could weaken soon.

“I cautiously predict [MERS] will peak today” and will be stabilized in the next few days, Health Minister Moon Hyung-pyo told lawmakers Monday.

The prospects for the virus weakening this week depend on whether there are many people who have evaded government quarantine measures and infected other people in various places, said Jacob Lee, an infectious disease expert at Kangnam Sacred Heart Hospital in Seoul.

The head of the Korean Hospital Association, who accompanied the country's deputy prime minister on a visit on Tuesday to a Daejeon hospital where MERS patients were being treated, criticized the government for poor communication.

“The hospitals that did not receive information on patients have been wounded deeply,” Park Sang-geun said during an open meeting.

It was only on Sunday that South Korean officials released the names of all the health facilities where MERS victims had been treated or visited, which now number 35.

The Chinese territory of Macau required masks for people entering local health care facilities as a precaution against MERS, and advised residents to avoid travel to South Korea unless absolutely necessary.

Singapore said it would start screening body temperatures of passengers arriving from South Korea from late Tuesday.

The World Health Organization (WHO) began work on a joint mission with South Korean doctors and officials to review the country's response and analyze the virus.

The WHO has not recommended any curb on travel, but thousands of tourists have canceled plans to visit South Korea.

The Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong has canceled all tours to South Korea that were scheduled between now and June 30, excluding cruises, with 10,000 to 12,000 travelers to be affected, the city's public broadcaster reported.

South Korea has the second highest number of infections, after Saudi Arabia, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The seventh reported MERS death in South Korea was a 68-year-old woman who had an existing heart ailment and had been in the emergency room of a Seoul hospital, where a number of previous confirmed cases had been traced.

South Korea's new cases bring the total of MERS cases globally to 1,244, based on WHO data, with at least 446 related deaths.

Wire services

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