, SEOUL, June 19- South Korea said on Friday that the MERS outbreak that has killed 24 people appears to have begun subsiding, as it reported one new case — the lowest rate of new infections in two weeks.
This brought to 166 the total number of confirmed cases of the disease in the country since the first was confirmed on May 20, the health ministry said.
The number of people in quarantine had fallen 12 percent from Thursday to 5,930, a day after Thailand reported Southeast Asia’s first case of the deadly virus since the South Korean outbreak.
The government of President Park Geun Hye has come under attack for its inadequate initial response but on Thursday World Health Organization (WHO) chief Margaret Chan expressed guarded optimism over South Korea’s ability to contain the outbreak.
She said Seoul was now “on a very good footing” after an initially slow response.
A village that was put under quarantine was opened up after two weeks of isolation early Friday, allowing its population of 102 people to resume normal activities.
“Apparently, the outbreak has started subsiding,” a health ministry official told journalists at a daily briefing in Seoul.
“But we have to wait and see whether more cases occur” in hospitals exposed to the virus, he added.
The latest confirmed case involved a 62 year old man who contracted the virus while giving nursing care to an infected family member at Samsung Medical Centre in Seoul, the largest epicentre of the outbreak, linked to about half of all confirmed cases.
The hospital suspended services to non MERS sufferers on Sunday, with other patients being moved to different medical facilities, and would remain closed for other treatment at least until Wednesday next week.
Currently, 112 patients are in hospital for treatment and 30 others have recovered and been released.
Jangdeok Village in Sunchang County south of Seoul was back to normal after road blocks leading to the village were lifted Friday, Yonhap News Agency said.
The whole village had been put under quarantine after a 72 year old resident there was diagnosed with the virus.
“This is good. I felt like I had been a prisoner for a long time”, Park Yoo Hyun, a 72 year old farmer, was quoted as saying by Yonhap.
A second village under quarantine is expected to follow suit on Monday, barring any new cases there.
– ‘Slow start’ –
A senior health ministry official had on Tuesday expressed cautious optimism that the worst of the outbreak was over, only for eight new cases to emerge on Wednesday and for the WHO to warn that South Korea was facing a “wake-up call” and urge more vigilance.
But WHO chief Chan said in Seoul on Thursday that the outbreak would be brought under control “although it may take a little longer than everyone would like to see”, adding that the government had admitted it had got off to a “slow start”.
The good news was that scientists had not detected any genetic change in the virus, she added.
However, the laggardly response to the disease has fuelled discontent with the government that began last year when the Sewol ferry disaster claimed more than 300 lives, mostly high-school students.
Park’s approval ratings have fallen further over the past week to 29 percent, the lowest since she took office in 2013.
In Bangkok, Thai authorities Friday said an Omani man found to have MERS was “stable” and that they were monitoring 59 other people to contain the virus.
Surachet Satitniramai, acting permanent secretary of the public health ministry, told AFP that the 75 year old patient had travelled to Bangkok for treatment for a heart problem.
In an earlier statement the ministry said 59 people who had been in contact with the Omani were under observation at hospital and their homes in Thailand.
Government spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said authorities were confident that Thailand’s measures to contain the virus were “under control”.