Park postpones US trip as S Korea MERS death toll hits nine

SEOUL - South Korean President Park Geun-Hye has postponed a planned trip to the US, her spokesman said Wednesday, amid growing public alarm over the MERS outbreak which has now claimed nine lives.

The decision to delay the June 14-18 visit came after Park's administration came under fire for its alleged insufficient response to the crisis.

"President Park decided to postpone the US trip in order to help end the outbreak of MERS and take care of public safety," her senior press secretary Kim Sung-Woo told reporters.

"We asked for understanding from the US government and both nations agreed to reschedule the trip at the earliest convenience," he said.

Two new deaths and 13 new cases were confirmed on Wednesday, bringing the total number of deaths to nine and infections to 108 in the outbreak, the health ministry said.

The first infected patient was diagnosed on May 20.

Nearly 3,500 people who were exposed to patients have been placed under quarantine of varying degrees, the authorities announced Wednesday.

As the number of cases and deaths has risen and public alarm escalated, nearly 2,500 schools - mostly in Seoul and surrounding Gyeonggi province - have temporarily closed.

Park's approval ratings have taken a dive as critics accused her administration and health officials of responding slowly to the crisis.

The two latest fatalities were a 75-year-old woman and a 62-year-old man, victims of the largest outbreak of the virus outside Saudi Arabia.

The pair contracted the virus at Samsung Medical Centre, a major hospital in southern Seoul which has seen the greatest number of total infections and where 10 of the 13 new patients were also infected.

The three other new victims had their diagnoses confirmed at three different hospitals, including two in the central city of Daejeon and one near a southern suburb of Seoul.

All the infections were limited to hospitals and health authorities stressed that the outbreak had not spread to communities outside hospital settings.

The nine dead had pre-existing health conditions, the ministry said.

The virus is considered a deadlier but less infectious cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed hundreds of people when it appeared in Asia in 2003.

There is no vaccine or cure for MERS which, according to World Health Organisation data, has a fatality rate of around 35 per cent.