About the Author
View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
North Korea could face a shortage of medication needed to treat drug-susceptible tuberculosis (TB), the Eugene Bell Foundation NGO warned on Thursday, urging South Koreans to play a more active role in providing humanitarian aid to the DPRK.
The shortage, the group said, was tied to international financing organization the Global Fund’s February 2018 decision to withdraw from DPRK operations.
The Global Fund last month announced it had changed course, approving a $41.7 million grant for in-country work related to eliminating tuberculosis and malaria between October 1 in 2019 and September 30 in 2021.
But speaking at a press conference in Seoul on Thursday, Eugene Bell Foundation board member Choi See-moon said the North Korean government is yet to agree to a resumption of the Global Fund’s humanitarian assistance work.
This continued delay, Choi warned, could lead to a dearth of the medical supplies needed to treat drug-susceptible TB in the country.
Without an instant additional purchase, she said, the North will face serious shortages of anti-TB drugs by June 2020, urging South Korean society to play a greater role in resolving the issue.
“Global Fund could have resumed its aid from October and pushed forward a purchase, but it has not been able to make a decision on the purchase because it and North Korea have not yet come to an agreement,” Choi said at a conference meant, in part, to brief reporters on a recent regular visit by the NGO between September 2 and 24.
It takes around nine months for an order of medical supplies to ship to the North, Choi said, taking into account factors including marine transport and customs and quarantine procedures.
“We should take measures at the earliest possible time to prevent a shortage of medicines to treat drug-susceptible tuberculosis in order to make North Korean medical teams be able to concentrate on tuberculosis treatment without a troubled mind and concern about drug inventory,” she stressed.
“South Korean society’s preparedness for a shortage of antituberculosis drugs will serve as an opportunity to show that it can shoulder the responsibility for the tuberculosis problem on the Korean peninsula.”
Eugene Bell has long supported in-country medical treatment of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), but said Thursday that it simply does not have the capacity at the moment to expand its work into drug-susceptible TB treatment as well.
When asked by NK News why Global Fund and the North Korean government have not yet reached a deal, NGO founder and president Stephen Linton said he was unable to directly comment on the issue.
Global Fund representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NK News.
Should the group resume DPRK work, Eugene Bell is set to receive 30 percent of Global Fund’s grant and work on a project treating MDR-TB patients for three years.
Funded by Global Fund, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) will then be charged with treating patients infected with drug-susceptible TB.
Linton emphasized that the “worst-case scenario” should be always considered, given Global Fund’s focus on such a highly-contagious disease.
South Korean society, he stressed, must take more proactive action in anticipation of a scenario in which Global Fund cannot restart work in the DPRK.
“This is your problem, too,” Linton told an audience in Seoul, calling on South Korean society to have a “sense of responsibility and urgency” in handling the infectious disease.
He then, however, clarified that he was not referring to the South Korean government, explaining that government-level humanitarian assistance may make the issue more complex.
Linton instead proposed a South Korea-based private sector initiative to gather funds aimed at preventing infectious diseases on the Korean peninsula.
Speaking at the news conference on Thursday, board member Choi See-moon also said the organization would be seeking an additional humanitarian exemption from current UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions in the near-future.
Facing the “urgent” need to expand its MDR-TB treatment program and increase the number of North Korean recipients, Choi said an “enhancement in geographical accessibility to the MDR-TB treatment” should be one solution.
To that end, small vans for TB patients were necessary, she said, adding that they can be used for various purposes including transporting patients, medical staff, medication, and diagnostic supplies, as well as serving as ambulances in emergencies.
By using small vans, Choi said the MDR-TB treatment program will shift from a “passive approach” in which patients who went through several failed TB treatments visit a center seeking medical help, to an “active approach” in which the NGO finds patients.
“Eugene Bell Foundation will apply for sanctions exemption on vans for tuberculosis patients to improve our diagnostic ability by actively discovering patients and enhancing the accessibility of patients,” she said.
September’s visit by the NGO saw around 700 new North Korean MDR-TB patients register for its program, bringing the number of DPRK citizens being treated by Eugene Bell to 18,000.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Eugene Bell Foundation — distribution of photographs provided by Eugene Bell Foundation is strictly prohibited