South Korea replaces health minister criticized over MERS outbreak

A group of tourists wear masks to prevent contracting Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) as they arrive at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Thailand, June 21, 2015. REUTERS/Kerek Wongsa (Reuters)

By Jack Kim SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean President Park Geun-hye removed her minister of health on Tuesday after criticism over the handling of an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) which killed 36 people as it spread through hospitals. Minister of Health and Welfare Moon Hyung-pyo, an economist and expert on welfare policy, was criticized for a decision to withhold the names of hospitals that had handled MERS patients in the early stage of the outbreak, fuelling confusion and fear. The outbreak has dealt a major blow to an already weakened economy, knocking second-quarter growth to its slowest in more than six years as it closed thousands of schools, kept consumers at home and scared off foreign tourists. Park's public support dipped to the lowest point in her single five-year term as the MERS virus spread. Park appointed Chung Chin-youb, an orthopedic surgeon and public health expert, as the new health minister, said her spokesman, Min Kyung-wook. He did not give a reason for Moon's removal. Last week, South Korea declared it was effectively out of danger from MERS, two months after the first case was reported. The outbreak was brought in to South Korea by a businessman who returned in early May from a trip to the Middle East, where the virus was first identified. The outbreak grew to become the largest outside Saudi Arabia, infecting 186 people and putting nearly 17,000 in quarantine. The MERS virus is of the same family of coronaviruses that triggered a deadly outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2003. Twelve people remain in hospital in South Korea for MERS although only one is still testing positive for the virus, the Health Ministry said. No new cases have been reported since July 4. Health experts say the virus has an incubation period of about two weeks. (Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Robert Birsel)