South Korean officials row over handling of Mers outbreak

South Korean student wears mask as she goes to school in Seoul on 5 June 2015 Image copyright AP
Image caption The public in South Korea is reacting to the Mers outbreak by buying masks

A row has broken out between South Korean government officials over their handling of an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers).

Health Minister Moon Hyung-pyo accused city officials in the capital, Seoul, of giving out incorrect information which he said would spread alarm.

Four people in South Korea have died and 41 have been infected by Mers.

The outbreak is the largest outside the Middle East, where the disease first appeared in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

Mers can cause fever, breathing problems, pneumonia and kidney failure. The virus has a death rate of 27%, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). There is currently no vaccine.

'Increase public concern'

On Thursday, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said a South Korean doctor disobeyed an order to stay away from the public after showing symptoms of Mers on Sunday.

Mr Park accused him of continuing to work and attend meetings involving more than 1,500 people. It later emerged the doctor had contracted Mers from a patient.

BBC South Korea correspondent Steve Evans says the fear now is that the infected doctor might have spread the illness uncontrollably.

The people at the gathering have been advised to stay in voluntary quarantine.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Government officials are trying to prevent the spread of the disease and public panic

Mr Park has criticised the central government for not making more information available, particularly in the case of the doctor.

Health Minister Moon Hyung-pyo hit back, rejecting the claim his ministry had mishandled the case.

"The announcement by the city of Seoul yesterday has parts that are not factual and can increase public concern," he said.

The comments would only hurt the credibility of the government's effort to stamp out Mers, he said.

Schools closed

Our correspondent says the authorities have a dilemma - too much information may promote panic while too little information promotes rumour and unnecessary fear.

In an atmosphere of uncertainty, the public are reacting by buying masks and keeping their children away from school, he adds.

Five new cases overnight brought the total number of known infections in the country to 41.

The fourth fatality was a 76-year-old man who died on Thursday after testing positive for the virus last month.

More than 700 schools in South Korea have been closed since the outbreak began.

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