Eugene Bell Foundation Chairman Stephen Linton speaks during a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. The U.S.-based nonprofit group called for South Korea to take stronger steps to fight a tuberculosis crisis in North Korea it says has worsened under strengthened U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile program. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Group calls for bigger Seoul role in tackling TB in NKorea

November 16, 2018 - 12:05 am

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A U.S.-based nonprofit group has called for South Korea to take stronger steps to fight a tuberculosis crisis in North Korea it says has worsened under strengthened U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile program.

Stephen Linton, chairman of the Eugene Bell Foundation, on Friday criticized Seoul's supposed lack of urgency to help aid organizations gain sanctions exemptions to facilitate the delivery of supplies to treat patients in North Korea. He said a failure to get North Korea's tuberculosis problem under control could potentially have health consequences for South Korea, which is actively pushing exchanges with North Korea to improve relations amid larger U.S.-led negotiations to rid the North of its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

"This is an airborne disease that can possibly be exchanged in any space South Korean and North Korean people meet," said Linton, who spoke in Korean during a news conference in Seoul. "There is a house on fire, but the house very next to it is very casual about it. They would have treated this as an emergency that it is if tuberculosis kills people within several months, like Ebola does, but tuberculosis kills slowly, taking three to five years."

Tuberculosis is one of North Korea's biggest health problems. According to the World Health Organization, about 107,000 cases of tuberculosis were reported in North Korea in 2017, resulting in about 16,000 deaths.

Linton said the efforts to fight tuberculosis in North Korea were dealt a seriously blow when the Geneva-based nonprofit Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria announced in February that it was ending its program in North Korea, a decision he believes was at least partially connected to sanctions-related pressure. The U.S. government, which pledged $1.4 billion this year, is one of the biggest donors to Global Fund.

While Eugene Bell Foundation is focused on treating North Korean patients with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, which develops after exposure to medications that failed and typically takes about 18 months to treat, the Global Fund had treated both regular tuberculosis and MDR-TB patients.

Choi Seemoon, a Eugene Bell director, said Global Fund's departure could worsen the crisis through increased infections caused by patients who are forced to reduce or go off their medications prematurely. Many of these patients can become multidrug resistant, she said.

While the Eugene Bell and Global Fund have provided MDR-TB medications to about 2,000 patients this year, that's less than 30 percent of the estimated 8,000 North Koreans with the condition, she said. Global Fund's stock of regular tuberculosis medicine will run out in early 2020, while its stock of MDR-TB medicine can only cover patients registered by the autumn of this year, she said.

"There needs to be a quick purchase of medicine and supplies to overcome the void left by Global Fund," Choi said. "Whether the issue is resolved through inter-Korean talks or through international bodies and non-governmental channels, there should be a quick delivery of tuberculosis medicine to North Korea regardless of what channel it takes."

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