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Bird Flu Fears Halt North Korean Poultry Exports

Kurt Achin

The World Health Organization is investigating a possible outbreak of avian influenza in North Korea. The suspected outbreak is already affecting North Korean export plans.

South Korea has decided to delay planned imports of North Korean poultry following a suspected outbreak of bird flu at a farm near the North Korean capital. The Japanese government also says it will not allow any North Korean poultry imports.

For South Korea, Thursday's planned shipment would have been the first import of North Korean poultry in almost 50 years.

North Korean officials have not confirmed the outbreak of the bird flu. South Korean media are attributing reports of the outbreak to unnamed sources, and also point to a report from Pyongyang's central news agency last week saying veterinary activity had been intensified at poultry farms.

Dr. Samad Abdullah represents the World Health Organization in New Delhi - the regional office responsible for North Korea, also called the DPRK. He says the WHO's knowledge is still at the rumor stage:

"We have a WHO representative there in DPR Korea," he said. " Verification takes some time. It depends on the distance from the capital, the communications distance in terms of physical communication, or telephone communication and so on."

A strain of avian flu known as H5N1 has swept across much of Asia in the past 18 months, forcing governments to cull millions of chickens and ducks. The disease has killed more than 40 people in Southeast Asia since late 2003 - most victims caught the virus from sick poultry.

Human victims in North Korea could be particularly vulnerable to the disease because of the poor state of the health system.

Health experts say dealing with a bird flu outbreak in North Korea would be difficult. Under Pyongyang's Stalinist system, international organizations are given very little access to the country, so agencies such as the WHO may not be able to visit poultry farms to identify disease outbreaks or to monitor containment efforts.

Impoverished North Korea has experienced severe food shortages since the mid-1990s. That means it may try to avoid the standard response to a bird flu outbreak - a thorough cull of chickens.

WHO researchers have repeatedly warned of the possibility the virus could mutate into a form transmissible from human to human, which they say could spark a global pandemic.

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