South Korea declares end to MERS outbreak

Seoul (AFP) - South Korea on Tuesday declared the effective end to a deadly outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) that killed 36 people, triggered widespread panic and stymied growth in Asia's fourth-largest economy.

Addressing a meeting of government officials in Seoul, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn said the danger posed by what was the biggest outbreak of the virus outside Saudi Arabia was over.

"After weighing various circumstances, the medical personnel and the government judge that the people can now be free from worry," Hwang said.

"I ask the public to shake off all concerns over MERS and to resume normal daily activities, including economic, cultural, leisure and school activities," he added.

Thousands of schools were closed at the peak of the outbreak, as anxious parents kept their children home.

The outbreak took a heavy toll on the national economy, stifling consumer spending and devastating the tourist sector.

Local businesses including shopping malls, restaurants and cinemas reported a sharp drop in sales as people shunned public venues with large crowds.

- Economic stimulus -

The government recently announced a 22 trillion won ($19.8 billion) stimulus package, much of which was aimed at supporting businesses hurt by the MERS crisis.

Earlier this month, the Bank of Korea (BOK) cut its 2015 economic growth forecast for the third time this year, from 3.1 percent growth to 2.8 percent.

Citing sluggish exports and weak domestic consumption -- exacerbated by the MERS outbreak -- the central bank has kept its benchmark interest rate unchanged at a record low of 1.5 percent.

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.

Criticised for its initial response to the outbreak, the government introduced sweeping quarantine measures that saw nearly 17,000 people confined to their homes.

The policy was effective in restricting the spread of the disease to medical facilities, with no infections reported in the wider community.

With one patient still undergoing treatment in hospital, Tuesday's announcement by the prime minister stopped short of formally declaring South Korea MERS free.

World Health Organization standards call for a four-week waiting period after the last MERS patient fully recovers, before declaring the outbreak definitively over.

"We will continue to carry out remaining measures and responses until the situation comes to a formal end," senior health ministry official Kwon Duk-Cheol told reporters.

"We still have many arrivals from the Middle East so there is always a possibility that new patients can come in," Kwon said, adding that screening stations in airports would continue to operate.

While no additional MERS infections have been reported since July 4, BOK governor Lee Ju-Yeol said the economic impact of the deadly disease would last through August.

Tourism was hit particularly hard, with the number of foreign visitors plunging by more than 40 percent in June compared to a year ago, and a further 60 percent in the first two weeks of July.

Seoul plans to spend up to 30 billion won on campaigns to lure back travellers including free promotional tours and large concerts by big-name K-pop stars.

"We are particularly eager to bring back Chinese tourists," vice tourism minister Kim Chong told foreign reporters last week.