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“To Be Legal or to Be Compassionate?”

Posted August. 24, 2007 07:29,   


The IFRC said that massive flooding coupled with a heat wave has caused infectious disease in North Korea. There has been a 20% increase in the number of diarrhea sufferers, and children with weak immune systems are suffering from acute respiratory diseases. However, North Korea is lacking in needed medications to fight this problem.

South Korea, however, with its over 100 billion dollar pharmaceutical market, witnesses drugs worth 50 to 80 million dollars disposed of annually. The Ministry of Heath and Welfare said that it plans to send some 500,000 dollars in pharmaceuticals, way short of what is needed in the North. Many say that the South should send medicine with expired shelf life as Pyongyang requests.

Between law and ethics-

On February 15, the North Korean Red Cross sent a fax through the Institute for Peace Affairs, saying, “As you are aware, we do not have enough medicine in the North. We would appreciate it if you sent pharmaceuticals that passed their expiration date to us. We will not blame the South for problems that arise from those medicines.”

Pyongyang added, “Because we are the same people, South Korean drugs work best for our people. Chinese medicines are not as effective as South Korean and most of them are fakes. South Korean drugs that are expired by 6 to 12 months would be a very valuable resource for us.”

Unfortunately, however, the South maintains, “Legally and ethically, we can’t send those drugs.”

Humanitarian considerations-

Others say “It is not humane to do nothing and just see our brethren in the North dying of diseases that are easily curable with those drugs.”

Most medical experts agree that most medicines do not have adverse effects when their expiration date is passed. Professor Shin Hyeon-taek of Sookmyung Women’s University said, “Most medicines that passed the shelf life, if stored well, are not harmful to human body. The only difference is they are not as effective as they otherwise are.”

Medicine professor Shim Chang-gu of Seoul National University, who used to be the commissioner of KFDA, said, “Most medicines do not become toxic when they expire. It is not right for us to follow American-style security criteria and see many North Koreans succumb to diseases.”

Let law and humanitarianism meet halfway-

Is there any way to tackle this dilemma of law and humanitarianism conflicting with each other? Medical experts have come up with good ideas.

Jeong Myeong-cheon of the Korean Pharmaceutical Association said, “Fiscal year 2004-2005 saw unused medicines worth 15 million dollars discarded.” These particular sorts of drugs are recalled by their makers and are usually disposed of.

Pharmacies usually return medicines with less than 2 months of shelf life left to the manufacturers. If some 20,000 pharmacies across South Korea return those drugs a bit earlier and their makers collect them in a timely manner, the medicines can be sent to the North without passing the expiration date.

If they do that, of course, pharmaceutical companies will lose some money because of the increase in the number of returned drugs. In this case, the government, in an attempt to induce the companies to take part in the cause, can give some incentives, said the Korea Pharmaceuticals Manufacturers Association.