North Korea is rushing to contain an outbreak of a “malignant” intestinal disease, state media reported this week, a month after the country acknowledged it is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak.
State media have not disclosed the name of the intestinal disease but say North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has sent medicines to combat an “acute enteric epidemic” in the western province of South Hwanghae.
Enteric diseases are often acquired by consuming contaminated food or water but can also spread from person to person. They cause symptoms such as diarrhea, fever or cramps and can be deadly if left untreated.
The South Korean government suspects the disease may be cholera or typhoid fever, according to a Unification Ministry background briefing quoted by local media. North Korea, which is impoverished and underdeveloped in many parts, has long seen periodic outbreaks of such diseases.
South Korea has offered to help deal with the disease, but North Korea has not responded, the officials at the briefing said.
The situation could present a major challenge for the North Korean government, which may not have enough resources to deal with two major disease outbreaks at the same time.
The extent of the intestinal outbreak is not clear. State media reported Thursday that authorities have ordered all suspected cases to be quarantined. On Friday, they said quarantine facilities were being set up nationwide.
Authorities have sent enough medicine “for over 800 families suffering from the acute epidemic” in South Hwanghae, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
The country’s propaganda outlets have attempted to convey a sense of urgency and generosity on behalf of Kim, whose family, they say, personally helped prepare the medicines.
The recipients of the unspecified medicine “warmly cherished the benevolent image” of Kim, said state media, comparing the North Korean leader to “the greatest mother in the world.”
“The people in Haeju City shouted, ‘Long Live Comrade Kim Jong Un!’ and ‘Long Live the Workers' Party of Korea!’ at the top of their voice, crying in gratitude,” KCNA said.
On May 12, North Korea acknowledged for the first time that it is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. The admission came more than two years into a worldwide coronavirus pandemic.
Since then, North Korea has said its COVID-19 situation has vastly improved, though outside experts emphasize that even Pyongyang may not know the true extent of the outbreak.
Instead of reporting confirmed coronavirus cases, North Korea has posted daily counts of “fevered persons,” possibly because the country does not have enough COVID-19 testing supplies.
Since the middle of last month, North Korea has reported 4.58 million fever cases but only 73 deaths. If the fever cases were counted as confirmed COVID-19 cases, that would mean North Korea has achieved the world’s lowest COVID-19 fatality rate – by far.
Experts say that is not remotely believable, given North Korea’s antiquated healthcare system and probable lack of effective COVID-19 treatments. Until very recently, North Korea also did not have COVID-19 vaccines.
North Korea has repeatedly ignored offers of vaccines from COVAX, the U.N.-backed vaccine distribution effort. However, Gavi, the vaccine alliance that helps run COVAX, said earlier this month it “understands” North Korea “has accepted an offer of vaccines from China and has started to administer doses.” It offered no other details.
In an unusually blunt statement earlier this month, the World Health Organization said it assumes North Korea’s COVID-19 situation “is getting worse, not better.”