Leader Kim Jong-un on Wednesday sent his family’s reserve medicines to the western port city of Haeju for those diagnosed with an “acute enteric epidemic”, according to state news agency KCNA.
Mr Kim stressed on the need to contain the epidemic as soon as 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”, state media said, without providing other details.
He has also instructed his partymen to “well organise the work for sincerely preparing and sending medicines needed for curing the epidemic that broke out in and around Haeju City and Kangryong County”, according to the hermit kingdom’s main newspaper Rodong Sinmun.
The “enteric epidemic” is likely an infectious disease like typhoid, dysentery or cholera, which are caused by germs via contaminated food and water or contact with faeces of infected people.
The south Hwanghae province, where Haeju is located, is a crucial agricultural hub for the north. An outbreak in this region could possibly worsen the country’s food shortage.
“The outbreak of measles or typhoid isn’t uncommon in North Korea. I think it’s true there is an outbreak of infectious disease there but North Korea is using it as an opportunity to emphasise that Kim is caring for his people,” said Ahn Kyung-su, the head of dprkhealth.org.
“So it’s more like a political message than a medical one.”
Infectious diseases are not new to the north, which faces a dearth of proper water treatment facilities.
“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.
North Korea has reported 4.6 million Covid-19 cases so far. The isolated nation, which shut its borders at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, acknowledged its first Covid case only on 12 May.
Although the north maintains that Covid-19 has shown signs of subsiding, the World Health Organisation said it believes the situation is getting worse due to the lack of access to healthcare for its 26 million population.
State media on Thursday claimed the death toll from Covid-19 stood at 73 – a number that has been met with deep scepticism by experts and observers. Last month, Mr Kim reportedly sent his family’s medicines to Covid-19 patients.
South Korea said it is monitoring the outbreak and is willing to cooperate with the north to tackle the disease outbreak. Pyongyang, however, has remained unresponsive to any offers for dialogue, including Seoul’s earlier proposal to provide Covid-19 vaccines.
Additional reporting by agencies