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WHO: 5,000 Deaths from TB in North Korea Last Year

FILE - An X-ray of lungs infected with tuberculosis.
FILE - An X-ray of lungs infected with tuberculosis.

About 5,000 North Koreans died of tuberculosis last year according to a report released by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The disease caused 20 deaths per 100,000 tuberculosis patients in North Korea in 2014, a rate more than five times that of neighboring South Korea, according to WHO's Global Tuberculosis Report 2015.

Despite the high rate, Philippe Glaziou, WHO’s senior epidemiologist, told VOA the number of deaths resulting from tuberculosis in North Korea is “possibly declining.”

“About 5,000 people died of TB in the year of 2014. In the previous year, the number was about 6,000,” said Glaziou.

The report estimated there were nearly 110,000 tuberculosis patients in the communist country in 2014. That is 442 per 100,000 people, a slight increase from the previous year. In Asia, North Korea has the second highest number of tuberculosis patients after East Timor.

However, the number of multi-drug-resistant (MDR) tuberculosis patients, TB patients who have built up a tolerance toward existing treatments, has likely increased in North Korea.

The agency’s Global TB Program coordinator Karin Weyer said North Korea does not have the capacity to effectively differentiate patients with MDR TB from regular TB patients, which often contributes to underreporting of the drug-resistant type of tuberculosis.

“If the country had all the capacity to test every TB patient for MDR, they would probably find 3,800. But they only found 197 in 2014,” Weyer said.

Weyer said the U.N. agency plans to conduct a nationwide survey next year in an effort to curb the spread of the drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Globally, the number of deaths caused by tuberculosis has dropped by half since 1990.

Jee Abbey Lee contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with the VOA Korean service.