North Korea faces infectious disease outbreak amid COVID battle

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea reported an unknown gastro-intestinal epidemic in a farming region on Thursday, adding to pressure on the isolated country as it grapples with chronic food shortages and a wave of COVID-19 infections.

The Korean Central News Agency said that leader Kim Jong-un sent medicines to the western coastal city of Haeju on Wednesday to help patients suffering from the “acute intestinal epidemic”, without revealing the number of infected people or specifying the disease.

Intestinal refers to the digestive system.

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“(Kim) stressed the need to contain the epidemic as soon as possible by taking coherent measures to quarantine suspected cases to completely limit its spread, and confirming cases through epidemiological examination and scientific tests,” the agency said.

An official at the South Korean Unification Ministry in charge of the affairs of the two Koreas said the government is monitoring the outbreak of the disease, which is suspected of having cholera or typhoid.

The reported outbreak comes as North Korea grapples with its first outbreak of COVID-19 infection. A state of emergency was declared last month amid fears of a shortage of vaccines and medical supplies.

South Korea’s spy agency earlier told lawmakers that water-borne diseases, such as typhoid, were already circulating in North Korea before the coronavirus outbreak was declared.

A banner depicting a scene of medical products being transported on an empty street, amid growing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), is displayed in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo posted by Kyodo on May 23, 2022. Kyodo via Reuters

“Intestinal diseases such as typhoid and shigellosis are not particularly new in North Korea, but what is worrying is that they come at a time when the country is already suffering from COVID-19,” said Professor Shin Young-gyun of Hanyang University School of Medicine at Hanyang University. flood.

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Another Unification Ministry official said South Korea is ready to cooperate with North Korea to tackle the outbreak, but Pyongyang remains unresponsive to any offers of dialogue, including Seoul’s earlier proposal to provide COVID vaccines.

South Hwanghae Province, where Haeju is located, is North Korea’s main agricultural region, raising concerns about the potential effects on the country’s already severe food shortage.

While the potential for infection to spread through crops appears low, the key will be to disinfect water supply sources where the disease is likely to be transmitted by water, said Eom Joong-sik, an infectious disease expert at Gachon University Jill Medical Center.

Pyongyang has been announcing daily the number of fever patients without identifying them as COVID patients, apparently due to a lack of testing kits. Experts also suspect that the numbers released by the government-controlled media are underreported.

North Korea reported 26,010 more people had symptoms of fever on Thursday, as the total number of fever patients registered across the country since late April reached 4.56 million. The death toll linked to the outbreak was 73.

North Korea said the COVID wave has shown signs of abating, but the World Health Organization disputed Pyongyang’s claims earlier this month, saying it believed the situation was getting worse. Read more

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(Reporting by Su Hyang Choi and Hyunhye Shin) Editing by Lincoln Fest.

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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