The terrible state of N.Korean medical care

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A team of South Korean doctors who visited North Korea a few years ago recall how shocked they were by the appalling conditions they witnessed at a rural hospital. Ringer's solution being administered to patients were kept in used soft-drink bottles instead of sterilized packages, while dilapidated beds were splattered with blood stains. Surgical thread was so thick that patients convulsed each time their wounds were sewn up. Hospital rooms lacked heat and electricity, rendering medical equipment useless. Doctors were growing their own cotton to procure material for bandages.

Tuberculosis is a serious problem in North Korea. There are an estimated 1 million people, or 5 percent of North Korea's population, suffering from tuberculosis, often referred to as the poor man's disease. John Linton, the director of International Health Care Center at Severance Hospital who has been leading a campaign to root out tuberculosis in North Korea, personally witnessed the heart-wrenching struggles of doctors there.

Due to a shortage of x-ray film, tuberculosis patients are placed in front of the scanning machines while the physician in charge spends about one or two minutes looking at the images. As a result, doctors who treat 60 tuberculosis patients a day are exposed to tremendous amounts of radiation and end up damaging their own health. Some doctors even take skin off of their own legs to graft on burn victims.

During the 1960s and 1970s, North Korean propaganda touted the country's free medical care. Patients were treated according to a four-tiered system starting from neighborhood clinics, metropolitan or county hospitals, provincial medical centers and the Red Cross or Pyongyang University Medical Center. But after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in the 1980s, supplies of pharmaceutical products trickled almost to a halt, while a severe famine during the 1990s wreaked havoc with the entire medical system.

There are many patients in North Korea whose illnesses can be treated simply by taking medicine. Patients purchase drugs in open-air markets, since doctors merely write prescriptions due to a lack of medicine at hospitals. But with a shot of penicillin costing as much as 1 kg of rice, ordinary North Koreans cannot afford treatment. South Korean aid groups have built a children's hospital and a pharmaceutical factory in Pyongyang and have sent medicine to treat malaria and tuberculosis. Since 2002, Germany has invited 10 North Korean doctors each year for training programs that last between three months and a year.

There have been rumors of an outbreak of the H1N1 flu in North Korea since November, and the communist country confirmed nine cases in Pyongyang and Sinuiju earlier this week. Authorities ordered schools to close for the winter vacation last Friday, almost a month ahead of schedule, to prevent the disease from spreading among students.

Considering the malnourished state of North Korean children, the number of people suffering from chronic illnesses and the dilapidated medical facilities there, the H1N1 flu could escalate into disastrous proportions. Fortunately, the spread of virus has slowed down in South Korea, while there is an ample supply of drugs. North Korea must waste no time in accepting South Korea's gesture of aid.

By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Dong-seop

englishnews@chosun.com / Dec. 10, 2009 13:11 KST