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Epidemics on Rise in N. Korea: Report

Posted January. 31, 2007 07:09,   


Infectious diseases such as scarlet fever and measles are on the rise in North Korea, according to recent reports, adding to the severe economic hardships North Koreans are suffering.

North Koreans interviewed by the Dong-A Ilbo said that the North Korean authorities are sitting on their hands and not moving quickly to handle the outbreak of the diseases in Pyongyang and provincial areas due to a lack of medicine.

Scarlet fever, whose symptoms include sore throat, high fever, and a rash first broke out in Hyesan, Yanggangdo, and Shineuiju, North Pyongan Province last October, and has spread to the rest of the country.

Han Myong Ho (alias) living in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province said, “As of January, 4,000 people caught scarlet fever in Chongjin alone. The affected people were hospitalized at hospitals in Sunam.”

Symptoms of scarlet fever can be cured with penicillin, but hospitals which did not have stockpiles of the antibiotic just told those infected to boil water before drinking it. Furthermore, the rampant circulation of fake drugs from China may be increasing the death toll.

During the early days of the outbreak, North Korean authorities stopped trains, imposed curfews, and closed schools, factories, and offices in the infected areas. Though an educational campaign on scarlet fever was launched, the shortage of medicines for the epidemic is keeping the campaign from making headway.

The root causes of the outbreak are poor water and sewer systems, lack of electricity, and a collapse of the country’s preventive medicine system. For example, in rural areas in the North, flush toilets are rare, and water and sewer systems are in terrible condition, leading to all kinds of wastewater running directly into rivers.

Pumps often stop operating because of electricity shortages, which eventually leads to water supply problems. As a result, people often drink water from contaminated rivers. To make matters worse, vaccinations that had been given on a regular basis until the mid-1990s have stopped, which has resulted in periodic outbreaks of measles, chicken pox, paratyphoid fever, typhoid fever, cholera, foot-and-mouth disease and bird flu.

Amid the epidemic are panic-stricken rumors circulating. Jeong Mi Ae (alias) living in the North said, “There is a rumor circulating that South Korean intelligent agents are spreading the diseases through the North Korea-China border since the epidemic of scarlet fever first broke out around there.”