SEOUL - South Korea declared on Tuesday it is effectively out of danger from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), more than two months after the first case was reported and began spreading in hospital settings to kill 36 people.
The outbreak grew to become the largest outside Saudi Arabia, infecting 186 people and at its peak and putting nearly 17,000 in quarantine. It was traced to a man who returned from a business trip to the Middle East in May.
"It is the assessment of the government and the medical community that the public can rest easy," Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn told a government meeting on public health.
Twelve people remain hospitalized in South Korea and under treatment for MERS although only one is still testing positive for the MERS virus, the Health Ministry said, adding that no new cases have been reported since July 4. Health experts say the virus has an incubation period of about two weeks.
The outbreak has dealt a major blow to an already weakened economy, knocking second-quarter growth to its worst in more than six years as it closed thousands of schools, kept consumers at home and scared foreign tourists into cancelling trips.
The schools have reopened and shoppers are back in the stores, but officials are keen to repair lingering damage to sentiment.
Hwang said it was too early to declare the outbreak over but urged the public to return to normal daily life. He added that the government would implement reforms to fix health care shortcomings exposed during the outbreak, although he did not specify what steps it would take.
MERS infection is linked to the same family of coronaviruses that triggered a deadly outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003.
British health authorities are investigating two suspected cases of MERS in northern England. Twenty-six countries have reported cases since 2012.