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Nations Ban Non-Essential Travel to South Korea as MERS Panic Spreads

Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau have each issued travel warnings for South Korea, where a deadly outbreak of the MERS virus is spreading rapidly.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s second highest-ranking official, told citizens in a public press conference that this is a “red alert” and that all non-essential travel to South Korea must halt. “At this stage, to issue a clear message is something the Hong Kong government thinks is necessary,” she told media.

“Red alert” is the second-highest level for travel warnings in Hong Kong.

Taiwan, as well, has issued a travel advisory for its citizens planning trips to Seoul, South Korea’s capital. On Tuesday, the Taiwanese government widened its advisory to include the entire nation.

Macau, another Chinese-held territory near South Korea, also took measures to stop unnecessary travel to South Korea, in addition to requiring visitors to hospitals and other healthcare facilities to wear masks to prevent the spread of MERS.

MERS is an acronym for Middle East respiratory syndrome. It originated in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and it kills 30 to 40 percent of the infected. There is no known cure or vaccine.

There have been three cases of MERS in the United States, all occurring in 2014. Two patients were healthcare professionals who worked in Saudi Arabia at the time of the initial outbreak, and the third, an Illinois man, presumably became infected when doing business with one of the infected healthcare workers. All three managed to fight off the deadly virus.

Thus far, seven have died of MERS in the latest outbreak in South Korea. At least 95 have been infected, and the South Korean government has put thousands more into quarantine. Many public spaces, such as schools, have also been shut down, for fear of the disease spreading.

South Korean security officials are tracking the phones of those who have been put in quarantine to ensure they do not go into the general public and potentially infect more.

The latest victim, who died on Monday night, was a 68-year-old woman with a pre-existing heart condition. She was infected at the same hospital as the other victims of the disease.

Earlier this week, the United Nations sent a team from the World Health Organization to assess the situation in South Korea, gather information about the virus, and advise the public health response.

“South Korea is grappling with two battles; the disease itself, and the public’s fear,” one official said.

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