A report by the South Korean government’s settlement center for North Korean defectors revealed that 81 percent of over 3,000 people who fled from the North to the South were infected with tuberculosis (TB). The results could offer a glimpse into the health status of North Koreans.
Jeon Jeong-hee, a nursing officer at the Hanawon settlement center, released her findings at the “North Korea Tuberculosis and Healthcare Symposium” at the Seoul City Hall, Thursday.
|The “North Korea Tuberculosis and Healthcare Symposium” is underway at the Seoul City Hall, Thursday.|
Hanawon and the Korean National Tuberculosis Association conducted a purified protein derivative (PPD) skin test on 3,378 North Koreans (2,947 females and 431 males) and 81 percent of them tested positive.
Among those aged 40 or more, 90 percent were positive.
The South Korean authorities also found that 35 percent of defectors did not show any trace of BCG vaccination against TB.
Jeon said such findings could signal that North Korea had difficulties in the distribution and supply of TB vaccines and not enough facilities to keep medicines refrigerated.
She said that a bigger problem was that many North Korean defectors had multidrug-resistant TB. Some TB patients were resistant to a maximum of seven treatments.
Jeon attributed the high prevalence of multidrug-resistant TB in the defectors to the collapse of the drug management system in the North, the tendency to abuse drugs and the widespread of folk remedies.
The defectors who had TB treatments at Hanawon said in interviews with the media that the North’s authorities had poor TB management.
In the North, it was common to diagnose TB without any X-ray test to patients who had a fever or diagnose TB after touching the belly, the defectors said. The patients had to purchase TB drugs at a market without any prescription, they said.
For North Korean TB patients, it is difficult to buy TB treatments continuously because they are expensive. Considering a North Korean worker’s monthly wage is about 1,600 won on average, paying 15,000 won for a one-month streptomycin was a luxury.
Due to such financial burdens, North Koreans, including TB patients, turn to folk remedies, Jeon said.
She also surveyed 304 North Korean defectors about their experience of using home remedies, and 109 said they had used them. To treat TB, they took pear juice, ginger juice, traditional herbal medicines, and moxibustion.
“I received many requests from the North Korean defectors for ‘an appetite-raising medicine.’ Later I found that the drug they referred to was isoniazid, an antibiotic for TB treatment. People who took this medicine at a market later suffered from multidrug-resistant TB,” Jeon said.
As North Korean refugees are called “the future that came earlier” in the South, the South should actively study North Korean defectors’ health status, disease types, and lifestyles, she added.
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