North Korea has reported an outbreak of an unidentified gastrointestinal disease in the country’s southwest as it continues to battle a wave of COVID-19 that has further strained its already creaky health system.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said an unspecified number of people were suffering from an “acute enteric epidemic”. It did not identify the disease, but “enteric” refers to the gastrointestinal tract
Pyongyang has characterised its COVID-19 cases as “fever patients”, apparently due to a lack of testing kits. The World Health Organization has cast doubt on the North’s claim that the outbreak is subsiding, warning that cases are underreported and the situation could be getting worse.
More than 4.5 million cases have been reported since late April and the official death toll stands at 73.
In a photograph, leader Kim Jong Un was shown sending medicines to the port city of Haeju in South Hwanghae province to help deal with the outbreak.
“(Kim) stressed the need to contain the epidemic at the earliest date possible by taking a well-knit measure to quarantine the suspected cases to thoroughly curb its spread, confirming cases through epidemiological examination and scientific tests,” KCNA said.
An official at South Korea’s unification ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said Seoul was monitoring the outbreak, suspected to be cholera or typhoid.
The latest outbreak comes as the North continues to battle COVID-19.
Pyongyang declared a state of emergency over the virus after daily confirmed cases in its mostly unvaccinated population surged to nearly 393,000. On Thursday the number of “fever” cases was just over 26,000, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
South Korean experts say waterborne diseases, such as typhoid, were already widespread in North Korea, but the latest outbreak was taking place at a time when the country’s dilapidated health system was already stretched with COVID-19.
“Intestinal diseases such as typhoid and shigellosis are not particularly new in North Korea but what’s troubling is that it comes at a time when the country is already struggling from COVID-19,” said professor Shin Young-jeon at Hanyang University’s College of Medicine in Seoul.
South Hwanghae province is North Korea’s main agricultural region, raising concern about the possible effect on food supplies in a country where many people are already going hungry.
In 2021, the Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Food Programme revealed that 10.9 million North Koreans (42.4 percent of the population) were food insecure and in urgent need of assistance.