A health worker checks the body heat of children wearing face masks at an elementary school in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, on June 15, 2015 (AFP / Yonhap)

Seoul (AFP) – South Korea on Monday reported the 16th death in an expanding MERS outbreak and announced financial aid to the tourism industry, warning earnings could be slashed by up to $2.3 billion as thousands cancel travel plans.

Seoul also declared five new patients — bringing the total number of cases including the deaths to 150 — with fears growing over the impact of the crisis on Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

Vice tourism minister Kim Chong said more than 100,000 foreign travellers — mostly from China — have already cancelled trips to South Korea since the beginning of June and more are expected to follow suit.

“We estimate that… our foreign currency earnings will dwindle by $900 million if the number of foreign travellers drops by 20 percent, or by $2.3 billion if the number plunges by 50 percent,” Kim said, as the country approaches its peak tourist season of July and August.

He promised financial aid worth 72 billion won ($64 million) to help tourism-related businesses.

“Our tourism industry is faced with a very dire situation,” he said.

A 58-year-old man, who had been suffering from diabetes, is the latest victim of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome which broke out in South Korea less than a month ago.

The five new patients — aged from 39 to 84 — were infected in hospitals in cities including Seoul and Daejeon, 140 kilometres (90 miles) south of the capital.

Among them was a nurse who had performed CPR on an infected patient in Daejeon and one infected in Samsung Medical Centre in Seoul — the epicentre of the outbreak where more than 70 patients, visitors and medical staff contracted the virus.

The health ministry added 17 patients remained in an unstable condition.

— Hospitals at centre of outbreak —

The outbreak, the largest outside Saudi Arabia, started on May 20 when a 68-year-old man was diagnosed after returning from a trip to the country.

The virus has since spread at an unusually rapid pace and more than 5,200 people have been placed in quarantine.

Businesses including shopping malls, restaurants and cinemas have reported a sharp drop in sales as people shun public venues with large crowds.

On Thursday, the outbreak forced the central Bank of Korea to cut its key interest rate by 0.25 percentage points as the spread of the virus dampened already weak consumer sentiment.

Almost all patients were infected in hospital and experts from the World Health Organisation said Saturday they had found no evidence to indicate transmission of the virus in communities outside hospitals.

The Samsung hospital — one of the country’s largest — suspended most services Sunday to help curb the spread of the potentially deadly virus.

There is no vaccine for MERS which has a mortality rate of 35 percent, according to the WHO.

In Saudi Arabia, more than 950 people were infected and 412 died from the disease.

The outbreak in the South triggered alarm elsewhere in Asia including Hong Kong, which last week advised its citizens against non-essential travel to South Korea.

Pyongyang also urged Seoul to ban trips to the Kaesong joint industrial zone in the North by southerners who had visited MERS-affected venues, Seoul’s unification ministry said Monday.

The isolated country earlier vowed “water-tight” measures to ward off the virus by stepping up screening at border crossings.