SEOUL, June 11- South Korea’s outbreak of the potentially deadly MERS virus on Thursday forced the central bank to cut its key interest rate to ward off greater economic damage, as retailers report a slump in business.
In what has become the largest outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outside Saudi Arabia, Seoul reported 14 new cases, including the first infection of a pregnant woman.
The new diagnoses brought to 122 the total number of confirmed cases in South Korea, the health ministry said, while the number of fatalities remained at nine, with no further deaths reported in the past 24 hours.
Businesses including shopping malls, restaurants and cinemas have reported a sharp drop in sales as people shun public venues with large crowds.
Bank of Korea governor Lee Ju Yeol said slowing exports and threats to business from MERS were central to the decision to cut its benchmark rate by a quarter percentage point, to a record low of 1.5 percent.
It was the first cut since March, when the central bank made a surprise cut of 25 basis points.
“The full impact of the outbreak still remains uncertain but we thought it was desirable to act pre-emptively to curb its negative impact on… the economy,” the BoK chief told reporters.
In a statement, the BoK added: “In particular, we are concerned that economic and consumer sentiment, which had been improving, will worsen rapidly because of the MERS crisis.”
The BoK has slashed its forecast for this year’s growth twice already, from 3.9 percent to 3.4 percent in January and again to 3.1 percent in April.
– Travel warnings –
More than 54,000 foreign travellers have also cancelled planned trips to the country so far this month, according to the Korea Tourism Board.
Hong Kong has issued a “red” alert warning against non-essential travel to South Korea for health reasons. Seoul says World Health Organization guidelines do not warrant such action.
Taiwan raised its travel advisory level for South Korea but stopped short of warning its people against going at all. Other governments in Asia are urging caution but none has gone as far as Hong Kong in warning against non essential travel.
Residents of Hong Kong are particularly sensitive after an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) killed 299 people in the city in 2003 and sparked global panic.
The MERS virus is considered a deadlier but less infectious cousin of SARS.
On Wednesday, the area around a health clinic inside a metro station in Hong Kong was cordoned off and officials donned protective gear after a woman returning from South Korea showed flu-like symptoms.
Surgical masks reportedly sold out in shops around the station, but Hong Kong officials confirmed on Thursday that the woman had tested negative for MERS.
– ‘Don’t overreact’ –
Growing public alarm over the outbreak this week forced South Korean President Park Geun-Hye to cancel a planned June 14-18 trip to the United States.
Park’s administration has faced a storm of criticism at home for perceived slow and insufficient response to the crisis.
Finance Minister Choi Kyung Hwan has warned repeatedly that the impact of the outbreak could seriously hurt Asia’s fourth largest economy.
But he urged the public “not to overreact” and to continue normal daily life, stressing infections so far had been limited to hospitals.
Of the 14 new cases, eight were infected at Samsung Medical Centre in Seoul, a major hospital where 55 people are confirmed to have contracted the virus. That is the largest cluster in the outbreak.
A 39 year old woman in her final trimester of pregnancy was among those confirmed Thursday to have acquired the virus at the hospital.
“Of the 122 confirmed cases, this is the first case involving a pregnant woman,” the health ministry said, adding she was in a stable condition.
Another victim contracted the virus at a hospital in Hwaseong City, 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Seoul, and five others are under investigation to discover how they were infected.
More than 3,800 people who came into close contact with those infected are under quarantine, either at their homes or at health care facilities.
The first infected patient was diagnosed on May 20 after a trip to Saudi Arabia.
The 68 year old man visited four medical facilities, infecting other patients and medics, before he was finally diagnosed, sparking criticism that authorities had bungled the initial response.