Asia on high alert over possible MERS spread

*Update: South Korea recorded its 6th death and biggest single day jump in MERS infections, with 23 new cases.

South Korea's failure to effectively contain the Middle East respiratory syndrome early on is damaging its national image as critics slam it for "exporting" the virus, with neighbouring states toughening inspection of Korean visitors and tourists canceling their trips here.

Hong Kong authorities are considering indicting a 44-year-old Korean man on charges of offering false information about his previous contact with MERS patients should he visit Hong Kong again. The man was diagnosed with MERS in China's Guangdong province after he entered the country via Hong Kong last month.

Amid growing fears about MERS in Hong Kong where nearly 300 people died in 2003 due in an outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, media criticism increased over Korea's inept response to the outbreak of the virus.

Taiwan has raised its travel advisory level to yellow from gray. The yellow level is issued when a tourist is advised to take "special caution" and reconsider their trip to a particular area, while the gray level refers to a situation in which a tourist is advised to take a normal level of caution.

To assuage public jitters about MERS that killed five of the 64 Koreans infected as of Sunday, Taiwan conducted anti-infection drills in some medical institutions on Saturday. During the drills, health authorities practiced transporting and quarantining a mock patient.

The Taiwanese government also maintained close contact with some 300 Korean students within the country. They are also reportedly considering providing anti-infection masks to the Korean students who are to visit Korea for their summer vacation.

Alerted by the increasing number of Koreans infected with MERS, Japanese health authorities have decided to conduct thorough medical checkups on all of the people including Japanese who will enter Japan from Korea.

As concerns rose over the negative impact of the virus on the national image, the Seoul government vowed to strengthen co-operation with the international community to quickly and more effectively address MERS fears.

"It should not been seen as a source of diplomatic tension. Rather, we should view this issue as a transnational one for which we should step up international co-operation," an official of Seoul's Foreign Ministry told The Korea Herald, declining to be named.

On Monday, the Foreign Ministry, along with the Health Ministry, plan to hold a meeting with foreign diplomats in Seoul to explain the current situations surrounding the spread of MERS and Seoul's efforts to contain the virus.

The Seoul government also pledged to closely co-operate with the World Health Organisation to investigate the spread of MERS in Korea.

A team of WHO experts in virology, epidemiology and public health will launch a joint probe with Seoul officials on Tuesday to evaluate the infection situations and ascertain how the virus was spread here. Among the experts are those who previously handled the outbreak of MERS. The WHO team is led by Keiji Fukuda, its assistant director general for health security.

Meanwhile, the number of tourists who have cancelled their trips to Korea is on the rise, according to the state-funded Korea Tourism Organisation. Last Thursday, 20,600 foreigners cancelled their trips to Korea, an increase of 74.6 per cent from the previous day.

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