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7 New MERS Cases Raise S. Korea's Total to 145


South Korean health officials fumigate a theater while wearing protective gear in Seoul, June 12, 2015.

South Korea's Health Ministry reported seven new cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) on Sunday, taking the total to 145 in an outbreak that the World Health Organization called "large and complex."

All of the cases are believed to be linked to hospital settings and traced to a businessman who had returned from a trip to the Middle East. There have been 14 deaths, all elderly patients or people who had been suffering serious ailments. One victim was an ambulance driver who had transported one of the patients.

At a Saturday news conference, WHO and South Korean medical authorities noted that the virus was not yet spreading through the general population. But thousands thought to have come into contact with infected individuals have been placed under quarantine, and thousands of schools remain closed because of the outbreak.

Health officials said that as of Friday, 1,249 people had been released from isolation, sparking hope that the spread of the disease is slowing.

The outbreak has prompted President Park Geun-hye to postpone next week's planned visit to the United States.

Fears over the virus have also spread to other parts of Asia, including Hong Kong, which this week issued a "red alert" advising against nonessential travel to South Korea.

Public alarm has been widespread, in part because of false online rumors and also because MERS symptoms include fever, coughing and shortness of breath — all of which are typically associated with nonserious illnesses such as the common cold.

There is no vaccine or cure for MERS, which has a fatality rate of around 35 percent, according to the WHO.

The coronavirus is related to the one that infected thousands during the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS. MERS was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has spread to several other countries.

Some material for this report comes from AP, AFP and Reuters.