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North Korea reported a new “outbreak” of an intestinal disease on Thursday, an unusual announcement from the secretive country which is already grappling with a COVID-19 outbreak and severe economic turmoil.
It is unclear how many people are infected in what the official Korean Central News Agency has called an “acute enteric outbreak” in southwest Haeju city.
The agency did not name the disease, but enteric refers to intestinal diseases, such as typhoid, dysentery and cholera, which are caused by germs in contaminated food or water or by contact with feces of infected people. Such diseases occur regularly in North Korea, where there is a shortage of water treatment facilities and the public health system has been largely failing for decades.
Some observers said the purpose of the announcement was not so much to point out the infections themselves as to mention that leader Kim Jong Un donated drugs from his personal stock – an apparent effort to burnish his image at a moment of extreme difficulty.
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The official Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim had donated medicine from what she called her family’s stash. The country’s main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, published a front-page photo showing Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, looking at saline solutions and medicine the newspaper said they had given away.
In a country where power is concentrated in the hands of a small ruling elite and where hospitals often lack even basic supplies, defectors say it’s common for anyone who can to keep stocks of medicine at home – and higher officials are usually able to store more Ordinary Citizens. Observers also said the donated drugs may have simply come from state storage facilities, but were distributed in Kim’s name.
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“The outbreak of measles or typhoid is not uncommon in North Korea. I think it’s true that there is an outbreak of infectious disease there, but North Korea takes the opportunity to point out that Kim takes care of his people,” said Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website focused on health issues in North Korea. “So it sounds more like a political message than a medical message.”
Last month, North Korea reported an increasing number of fever patients. At the time, the South Korean spy agency said “a considerable number” of cases included people with measles, typhoid and whooping cough.
KCNA said Thursday that more than 4.5 million of the country’s 26 million people have fallen ill with an unidentified fever and 73 have died. The country, apparently short of coronavirus test kits, has only identified a fraction of those as confirmed cases of COVID-19. Many foreign experts question the death toll in the North, saying it is likely underreported to protect Kim from political harm.
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North Korea recently claimed progress in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in the unvaccinated population, although a senior World Health Organization official said this month that the agency believed the epidemic was getting worse.
At a ruling party conference last week, Kim said the pandemic situation had passed the stage of a “serious crisis”. But the country still maintains high restrictions. Some outside experts said the measures would further strain the country’s already struggling economy, hit by long-running pandemic-related border closures and UN sanctions.
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Late Thursday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry renewed its offer to help with health issues. After the North first announced the COVID-19 outbreak, South Korea and the United States offered to ship vaccines and other medical supplies, but the North did not respond.