With the first inter-Korean summit in 11 years to take place on Friday, local pediatric physicians are calling for Seoul’s support measures to better take care of North Korean children’s health in preparation for reunification.
Experts said the South should actively assist the North to proactively respond to infectious diseases of North Korean children, which would also lead to better health care for South Korean children in the future.
|The Korean Pediatrics Association holds a forum on inter-Korean cooperation for children’s health care and medical services in reunification, during the 68th Spring Academic Conference at the Hotel Inter Burgo Daegu in Daegu, on Friday.|
The Korean Pediatrics Association (KPA) held a forum on the inter-Korean cooperation for children’s health care and medical services in reunification, during the 68th Spring Academic Conference at the Hotel Inter Burgo Daegu in Daegu, on Friday.
At the forum, Choi Hee-ran, a North Korean defector and physician at Shin Hye Sung Clinic, revealed the state of North Korean children’s health and emphasized that they needed practical support.
“North Koreans are born in a harsh environment, and most are born with malnutrition. Children suffer from rickets since they are fetuses,” Choi said. “I still remember clearly when I was a doctor in charge of home health care. Fretful babies with rickets due to fever and sweat had hair loss and diarrhea due to pediatric disorders. Later, they had bowed legs due to bone deformation.”
Choi went on to say that the United Nations sent foods during the 1994-1998 North Korean famine called the Arduous March to address the starvation of North Korean children. However, such diets had “no practical effect because the children had weak digestive functions and had diarrhea as soon as they were fed,” Choi recalled.
Other experts also talked about the malnutrition issue in the North, urging diverse support to curb infectious diseases and high mortality rates.
Lee Hye-won, head of the public health team at Seoul Medical Center, said the gap in life expectancy between the two Koreas was 13 as of 2014. In the North, the proportion of non-infectious diseases out of the total diseases went up from 33 percent in 1990 to 42 percent in 2013, according to Lee. Because of infectious diseases, the standardized mortality rate of the North was 3.5 times higher than that of the South in 2013, Lee said.
“In 2015, 27.9 percent of North Korean children aged five and under had chronic malnutrition, and 33 percent of them had anemia as well. Priority should be given to areas where food supply is unstable,” Lee added.
Ko Jae-sung, a professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at Seoul National University’s College of Medicine, said half of the North Korean children died because of malnourishment. He also raised concerns about drinking water hygiene issues and deficiency in micronutrients such as iron and iodine.
“Malnutrition prolongs an infection for a long time and causes disorders in motion and cognitive development. Half of the child deaths come from poor diet,” Ko said. “About 70 percent of North Koreans, or 18 million people, rely on food aid. What’s worse is that actual rations are less than the North Korean authorities’ daily target of 573 grams per person. This causes 41 percent of the population, or 1 million people, to suffer from food shortages.”
He also noted that 51 percent of North Korean children have the iodine deficiency, being exposed to the risk of mental retardation and weak growth. He emphasized that the South should prepare support for such area.
About 82 percent of North Korean households and 38 percent of daycare centers use tap water for drinking water and 10.5 percent of the population use well water, threatening the public health, Ko said.
Other experts said there could be a limit in support because the actual effect of vaccination could not be confirmed, as opposed to Pyongyang’s claim that the state has a high vaccination rate.
“If people are undernourished, the first thing they can’t defend from is an infection. To reduce infectious diseases, nutrition should be a priority,” said Kim Jong-hyun, a professor at pediatrics department of the Catholic University of Korea. “North Korea began the vaccination project in the 1980s, and it claims that the vaccination rate is over 95 percent. But this figure came from North Korean authorities’ data submitted to the World Health Organization,” said Kim, hinting that the data was not credible.
In vaccination, “cold chain” is essential to maintain product quality from the time of manufacture until administration by ensuring that vaccines are stored and moved within appropriate temperature ranges. However, it is doubtful that the cold chain would be available in North Korea, where electricity supply is unstable, which makes 100 percent vaccination effect questionable, Kim said.
No tetanus is reported in North Korea while the infection occurs every year in South Korea. There is no diphtheria or pertussis report in the North.
However, such impeccability is questionable, experts said. Noting that medical reports about measles in North Korea and the WHO reports were inconsistent, the status of infections in North Korea is expected to be more serious, they said.
Recalling when Choi used to give immunization shots to North Korean children, she said, “It was difficult to store vaccination products without electricity at the time.” “While I gave the children inoculation, I questioned myself if it would be effective really,” Choi added.
Choi emphasized that North Korean children need “really necessary support.”
“For children who are not in a state to digest well, we should give food that can be digested easily, rather than high-calorie food,” she said.
“To prepare for reunification and protect South Korean children’s health as well, the KPA should initiate lively discussions about support measures to help enhance North Korean children’s health,” Choi went on to say.
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