A medical staff member wearing a protective suit enters the room of a patient suffering from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in an isolation ward at the Seoul Medical Center in Seoul on June 10, 2015
Seoul (AFP) - South Korean President Park Geun-Hye has postponed a planned trip to the United States, her spokesman said Wednesday, amid growing public alarm at 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 what critics say has been an inadequate 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."
Two new deaths and 13 new cases were confirmed on Wednesday, bringing the total number of deaths to nine and the number of infections to 108 in the worst outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outside Saudi Arabia.
The first infected patient was diagnosed on May 20 after a trip to Saudi Arabia.
The 68-year-old man spread the virus, visiting four medical facilities and infecting other patients and health care workers.
Since then, nearly 3,500 people who were exposed to infected people have been placed under quarantine of varying strictness.
The outbreak has also triggered alarm elsewhere in Asia.
A woman was rushed to a Hong Kong hospital Wednesday on suspicion she had contracted MERS, after returning from a trip to South Korea.
Hong Kong had previously quarantined 19 people as a precaution against MERS and had also isolated suspected cases which turned out to be false alarms.
Park's approval ratings have taken a dive as critics accused her administration and health officials of responding too slowly to the crisis.
A survey by polling agency Realmeter showed on Wednesday that more than half of South Koreans opposed her planned trip to the US, a major ally.
The two latest fatalities were a 75-year-old woman and a 62-year-old man.They contracted the virus at Samsung Medical Centre, a major hospital in Seoul.
It has seen 47 infections, the highest number at any single health facility, as well as 10 of the 13 new patients reported Wednesday.
The three other new victims had their diagnoses confirmed at three different hospitals, two in the central city of Daejeon and one near a southern suburb of Seoul.
- Hospital infections -
All the infections, however, were limited to hospitals.
The nine dead had pre-existing health conditions, the health ministry said, adding four patients so far have recovered and were released from hospital.
As the number of cases and deaths has risen and public alarm grew, nearly 2,500 schools -- mostly in Seoul and surrounding Gyeonggi province -- were closed Wednesday, up 300 from the previous day.
Local businesses including shopping malls, movie theatres and theme parks reported a sharp drop in business as people shunned crowded public venues.
Acting Prime Minister Choi Kyung-Hwan called for cooperation from the public in fighting the virus and promised more support for thousands quarantined at home.
"Please refrain from excessive responses such as avoiding shopping trips... and continue your normal daily activities," he said. In the case of those quarantined at home, he promised to provide "all possible support" such as cash aid and essential supplies.
Police said they were investigating eight people for spreading false rumours involving hospitals, or for passing on patient information without consent.
On Wednesday health officials also launched nationwide screening of sick persons with pneumonia, since MERS patients often develop pneumonia.
The virus is considered a deadlier but less infectious cousin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, 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 Organization (WHO) data, has a fatality rate of around 35 percent.
After a joint investigation with local experts, a WHO team said Wednesday that the pattern of the outbreak in South Korea is probably similar to the previous ones at Middle East healthcare facilities.
"However, the situation is rapidly evolving," it said in a statement, calling for strengthened infection prevention and control measures at all facilities across the country.