South Korea's MERS toll rises to 23 with three more deaths

SEOUL - South Korea reported three more MERS deaths Thursday, 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 Thursday, 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 Organisation (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.

Health authorities said Thursday that 35 per cent of the total cases involved families and friends who had visited patients or given them nursing care, while another 18 per cent were medics.

More than 6,700 people are currently being held in quarantine in a bid to halt the spread of the virus, up three per cent from Wednesday. Around 4,500 others have already been released from isolation.

But alarming news reports of infected people slipping through quarantine measures have undermined government efforts to assuage public fear over a virus that has already begun hurting the country's sagging economy.