PYONGYANG, 6 July 2005 - Despite some progress since the famine of the mid-1990s, children of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) are still malnourished and underweight by World Health Organization standards.
UNICEF's Representative in the DPRK, Pierrette Vu Thi, said "Since the mid-1990s we have made a difference for children in North Korea. But we do need to sustain these efforts. And the concern is with the current food shortages that could impact negatively on the nutritional status of children and even reverse the positive gains made over the past ten years."
As a major health challenge facing DPRK's children today, Ms. Vu Thi pointed to a combination of malnutrition with common childhood diseases such as diarrhoea.
"This combination takes on a heavy toll on the chances of survival and growth of North Korean children. Basic health services are in need of major rehabilitation in terms of the physical infrastructure and the availability of basic equipment and drugs as well as the quality of services," she explained.
Ms. Vu Thi did however note some moderate improvements in the nutritional status of children since 2002, particularly for younger children. The finding is based on a nutrition assessment survey conducted in October 2004 by the government of DPRK - sometimes referred to as North Korea - in collaboration with UNICEF and World Food Programme. The Representative nevertheless cautioned against any complacency in light of such progress.
"Chronic malnutrition among children one, two, three years old is 30 per cent lower than in 2002. This makes sense as it takes longer to reverse the impact of something in older children. However, we should not be complacent about the situation because chronic malnutrition and underweight are still quite high by WHO standards. I would also like to highlight the fact that, unfortunately, there has been no change in the nutritional status of mothers and some one third of mothers were found to be malnourished and anaemic as with the case in 2002," Ms. Vu Thi explained.
In efforts to address these issues, the DPR Korea has been holding 'National Child Health Days' since 1997, supported by UNICEF. Both in May and again in November, over 95 percent of all children nationwide aged six to 59 months - over two million children - receive vitamin A supplements and deworming medicine on each of these days.
"While UNICEF still provides the vitamin A capsules and deworming medicine, the Ministry of Public Health now covers on its own the transportation and other costs related to the organization of the Child Health Day. Thus, it does prove to be a cost-effective strategy to reach the children," said Ms. Vu Thi.
Thanks to National Child Health Days, DPR Korean mothers are found to be well aware of the benefits of Vitamin A and the country now has one of the highest levels of vitamin A distribution in the region. In fact, the overall health care situation has made notable improvement in the past few years. According to Ms. Vu Thi, immunization coverage has gone up from about 35 per cent in the mid-1990s to around 85 per cent today.
Ms. Vu Thi said UNICEF and its partners plan to expand on the National Child Health Days and provide a broader package of critical health interventions by utilizing some 3,000 local health facilities.
"We are now considering enlarging the package with information and key health care messages to be delivered to caregivers - and particularly to mothers - on the occasion of those days since it is such an opportunity for outreach. And we are going to deliver these messages in close collaboration with the Ministry of Public Health and also with other partners on the ground."