Another Mystery Disease Is Spreading Amid North Korea’s COVID Outbreak

Some experts have speculated that the outbreak may be cholera or typhoid, which could devastate the country’s malnourished population.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is sending his own home-prepared medicines to parts of the country recently afflicted by the outbreak of an unnamed intestinal sickness, according to state media. The severity of the disease, and the number of people affected, is as yet unclear.

Kim reportedly dispatched the large supply of medicine to the southern city of Haeju on Wednesday to help patients suffering from what state newspaper Rodong Sinmun labelled as an “acute enteric epidemic.” It is the first time a national North Korean state media outlet has reported on such an epidemic, and it comes just five weeks after the country’s first-ever public announcement of a COVID outbreak in mid-May.

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The vagueness of the report, which did not provide further details on the specific disease or size of the outbreak, also echoes the messaging around the COVID outbreak, when authorities revealed that an “obscure febrile disease” had rapidly infected more than 350,000 people. That number has since soared to more than 4.58 million.

In this case, some experts believe the “acute enteric epidemic” might be cholera or typhoid—both illnesses that could potentially be devastating for a civilian population as malnourished, famished, and nutritionally vulnerable as North Korea’s. South Hwanghae province, where Haeju is located, is also the nation's main agricultural region, meaning the outbreak could further exacerbate the country's chronic food shortages.

An official at South Korea's Unification Ministry told Reuters that Seoul is monitoring the outbreak, while the country's spy agency told lawmakers that waterborne diseases such as typhoid were already widespread in North Korea, even prior to the government’s COVID announcement.

Others believe it’s premature to make assumptions about what the intestinal sickness could be.

“It's too early to make any prediction about what the illness is because our only source of information is the North Korean government and state media,” Colin Zwirko, senior analytical correspondent at NK News, told VICE World News. “We know that it's intestinal in nature, but we don't know if it's bacterial or viral. We don't know if it's food borne, waterborne, or even if it spreads from person to person.”

Zwirko noted that there are some clues to be found between the lines of the state media announcements, though—such as Kim’s orders to implement quarantine measures in affected areas.

“That would suggest that they're at least cautious about it spreading person to person,” he said. “There was [also] a report today that attempted to go into detail about what health authorities were doing about this, which mentioned that this could be some kind of seasonal illness. But again, they—I would say intentionally—did not go into detail about what this is and could be, because they haven't figured it out yet.”

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Information out of North Korea’s so-called hermit kingdom is notoriously hard to come by, a situation only exacerbated after the government sealed its borders in the early days of the pandemic. For the most part, state media offers the only window into how the situation is unfolding on the ground. 

The Korean Central News Agency reported on Friday that Kim sent medicines prepared by his family to 800 other families in Haeju city. 

On Thursday, the state media outlet also reported that “[Kim] stressed the need to contain the epidemic at the earliest date possible by taking a well-knit measure to quarantine the suspected cases to thoroughly curb its spread, confirming cases through epidemiological examination and scientific tests, [and] intensifying the sterilisation of infected areas.”

South Korea said it is willing to cooperate with the North to tackle the outbreak of this latest disease, according to Reuters. It’s unclear whether Pyongyang, which has historically shunned offers of international support—including millions of COVID vaccines in September last year—would accept such a proposition.

“North Korea has not been responsive to international aid efforts regarding COVID 19,” said Zwirko. “So there aren't many signs that they would do [any differently] for whatever outbreak this is.”

Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.

Tagged:

kim jong-un, COVID-19, worldnews, world coronavirus

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