Rise in tuberculosis patients in South Pyongan Province

A medic administers a vaccination to a child in North Korea
A medic administers a vaccination to a child in North Korea. Image: Yonhap News Agency

There has been a drastic rise in tuberculosis (TB) patients in some areas of North Korea. The country’s medical infrastructure is poor and there is a severe lack of medicine, which means that North Koreans in these areas are failing to get proper treatment.

“South Pyongyang Province’s tuberculosis hospitals can only handle 100 patients, but the number of patients has risen so much that they are overflowing into regular hospitals,” said a South Pyongan Province-based source on April 22. “There has been a significant increase in TB patients among women and children in Kaechon, Pukchon, Tokchon and Taehung.”

A separate source in South Pyongan Province added that the patients are “cold, hungry, and treated poorly by both doctors and nurses. They are stressed out and want to leave, but their illness is infectious so they can’t.”

“The TB centers in hospitals are no better than ordinary houses because they are old and have no medicine,” she said.

North Korea’s No. 3 Hospital and No. 3 Sanatorium are focused on treating TB patients. Dilapidated facilities and the lack of expertise and medicine, however, continue to plague these treatment centers.

North Koreans suffering from the illness prefer home treatment to treatment at these hospitals.

“There are a lot of people who can’t get into a hospital so they are treating themselves at home wth medicine they purchase from the markets,” an additional source in South Pyongan Province explained.

The disintegration of North Korea’s health system in the 1990s during the country’s economic troubles led to a significant downturn in the quality of medical care. North Koreans don’t trust doctors or hospitals so they prefer to buy medicine at the markets or use private doctors.

TB, however, is highly contagious and without proper medical treatment patients risk infecting their entire family and local communities. The prevalence of home remedies to treat the disease is one reason why TB has spread.

TB requires long-term treatment along with medical care from medical professionals who can continuously observe patients and track their prescriptions of medicine. Without such medical treatment, patients risk failing to cure themselves of TB and may even face drug-resistant TB.

The World Health Organization (WHO)’s 2018 Global Tuberculosis Report states that North Korea has the world’s highest rate of TB occurrence at 513 cases per 100,000 people. There are around 5,200 cases of multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB), which means that regular medicine-based treatment will not cure the disease.

Experts say that MDR-TB patients will continue to infect their families, neighbors, other patients and even medical professionals in the country until North Korea implements an effective way to handle the problem.

There are even more difficulties expected for the treatment and prevention of TB due to international sanctions.

The Global Fund, which provided 130 million USD to North Korea to eradicate tuberculosis and malaria from 2010 to 2017, stopped provided funds to the country after experiencing months-long delays in sending medical equipment into North Korea due to international sanctions.

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification gave permission for the Eugene Bell Foundation, a non-profit organization providing medical treatment for MDR-TB patients in North Korea, to send patient treatment sets, delegation equipment, and patient wards into the country.

Eugene Bell Foundation representatives visit North Korea twice a year to monitor progress in the treatment of MDR-TB patients.

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