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N Korean healthcare 'near collapse'

North Korea farm
N Korea's healthcare is collapsing after years of natural disasters and economic crisis  

By CNN's Marianne Bray

(CNN) -- North Korea's healthcare system is near collapse, World Health Organization officials have said.

Squalid hospitals dot the poor communist state after years of natural disasters and a crippling economic crisis, WHO officials have told CNN.

Following a three-day visit by WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland, officials have described seeing clinics using beer bottles for intravenous drips and hospitals without power or medicine.

They say North Koreans are suffering from a range of preventable and once-eradicated diseases, such as tuberclosis, malaria and malnutrition.

In recent years the state's mortality rate has soared by more than 35 percent, with the number of people per 1,000 who die each year jumping from 6.8 to 9.3, the WHO says.

"The health care system has more or less collapsed," Eigil Sorensen, North Korea's WHO representative, told Reuters reporters in Beijing on Tuesday.

This a far cry from the 1970s, when North Korea boasted a universal health care system.

Floods and droughts in the 1990s have pushed one of the world's most centrally planned and isolated economies towards disaster.

The North relies heavily on international food aid to feed its 22 million people following the fall of the Soviet Union and withdrawal of aid and subsidized trade.

International donors have poured in food aid to alleviate a famine that by some estimates has killed as many as 2 million people, and threatens to push many more into a state of malnutrition.

U.N. mission

After her first trip to the state, Brundtland told reporters in Beijing on Tuesday that the healthcare system lacked in nearly all aspects.

Many clinics outside the main cities did not have medicines, equipment, water or electricity, she said.

As North Korea's hard winter approaches, Brundtland told Reuters news agency she visited unheated hospitals.

North Korea
North Korea has to funnel its resources to keep an army of around 1 million  

Even in North Korea's showpiece capital, Pyongyang, the maternity hospital was mostly unheated, though it did have working incubators.

In a bid to aid the flailing heath sector, the U.N. health group has just opened a permanent mission in the capital of Pyongyang, after setting up an emergency coordination office in 1997.

And the United Nations is joining ranks with other aid groups to try to deal with the massive problems facing the state, Dr. P.P. Chopra, who works in the WHO office in Pyonygang told CNN on Wednesday.

Spend more money

WHO's director has called for substantial investment in the country's health sector. She has urged North Korean officials to prioritize health and spend more money.

Her comments come amid reports that North Korea devotes just 3 percent of its economy to health -- about $30 for each of its 22 million people per year.

This is a tiny fraction of what Pyongyang spends on defense. Already the state has been slammed for funneling its resources to maintain an army of about 1 million.

It is already considered a "rogue nation" by the United States, who is concerned that the state is developing nuclear and chemical weapons.

Brundtland has noted how difficult it is to get a response from North Korea about their plans, and has cast her net wider and called on international donors to focus on health donations. Already she has asked South Korea to contribute to the North's decrepit health system.

The WHO is planning to launch an appeal for $8 million in aid next week.


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