Wednesday, December 9, 2009

H1N1: North Korea finally confirms pandemic swine flu outbreak

Finally, North Korea announced for the first time that it has several cases of swine flu, confirming overseas reports of an outbreak in the secretive and impoverished communist state.

The health ministry has reported a total of nine cases of (A)H1N1 in the capital Pyongyang and the city of Sinuiju on the Chinese border, the official Korean Central News Agency said.

Authorities put a quarantine system in place and centres have been set up nationwide to check for new cases, it said.

The World Health Organisation is working with Pyongyang to help stem the outbreak and assess the scope of infections, WHO spokeswoman Aphaluck Bhatiasevi told South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

"We are working closely with the government to see what is required and if they need any assistance from WHO," she said.

Yonhap quoted Bhatiasevi as saying there are likely to be more cases of the virus than announced, as people who have mild symptoms are not tested.

The South's unification ministry said it would send a message to the North offering swift deliveries of Tamiflu and other medicine.

"Assistance must be provided swiftly as the disease could quickly spread in North Korea where conditions are not so good," President Lee Myung-Bak said.

Most government-to-government aid was suspended after cross-border relations worsened last year, although private South Korean groups still send shipments northwards.

Observers say the virus could pose a particular threat to the impoverished North because of malnutrition amid persistent food shortages and a lack of drugs.

Good Friends, a Seoul-based aid group with cross-border contacts, reported Monday the disease has been spreading rapidly because Tamiflu is rare there. Although, given the reported ineffectiveness of Tamiflu, it will be interesting to monitor how quickly the virus spreads.

It said seven youths died in Pyongyang in November while two others reportedly died in Pyongsong north of the capital.

Schools last Friday started their winter vacation a month early to guard against the spread of the disease, the group said.

Public health conditions are also dire with medical equipment and medicine in short supply and clean drinking water and sanitised items frequently problematic, it said.

Drugs for Leaders only

The conservative Dong-A Ilbo newspaper quoted unidentified sources as saying that North Korea has secured Tamiflu and other drugs through foreign missions in Europe but only for leader Kim Jong-Il and other top officials.

North Korea refused Tamiflu
In May, the WHO supplied a total of 2.4 million courses of Tamiflu to 72 countries, but Seoul officials said the North's likely share of this would be grossly inadequate.

"Considering the North's population is 24 million, and the infection rate going up to 20 to 30 percent in underdeveloped countries, the North would need the drug by the millions," said Kwon Jun-Wook, a swine flu specialist at the South Korean health ministry.

North Korea has a high death rate from pneumonia, which rises when there is a food shortage.

Kwon told Yonhap the (A)H1N1 virus has an even higher infection rate than pneumonia and would be more dangerous to the North Korean people.

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