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Red Cross: North Korea medical system near collapse

November 6, 1997
Web posted at: 10:03 a.m. EST (1503 GMT)

PYONGYANG, North Korea (CNN) -- The International Red Cross is set to increase its medical program in famine-stricken North Korea by more than 50 percent to prevent the collapse of the country's health care system, relief officials said Thursday.

While massive food aid to North Korea may have limited the effects of the famine there, they said, the population has been weakened by malnutrition, and was at high risk to succumbing to disease. Meanwhile, they say, the medical system is in no shape to either prevent or treat widespread illnesses.

Even the Red Cross's own first aid center in Kaesong had no medicine or equipment, officials said. The agency plans to provide training, equipment and medicine to hospitals that serve 3.5 million people.

"In addition to its food distribution program, the Red Cross intends to provide first aid, blankets, clothing and winter heating fuel," said Jon Valfells, the chief press officer for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Valfells said hospitals and clinics throughout the country were empty, with no drugs and only some traditional medicines to help people who fall ill. "They have ... nothing to help people avoid the effects of disease," he said.

Red Cross spokesman describes shortage of medicine
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Situation years in the making

Massive flooding for two consecutive years followed by widespread drought the third year devastated North Korean harvests. The isolationist country finally appealed for international aid earlier this year.

Since then, massive injections of food assistance from other countries, including South Korea, Japan and the United States, have helped the 22 million people in North Korea.

In August, aid officials estimated that North Koreans were living off an average 150 grams of food per day, or about 12 spoonfuls -- one-fifth the intake experts say is needed for a healthful diet.

Many children across the country are believed to have died from malnutrition and related diseases in the past year.

"They say the situation is marginally better," Valfells said. "Now, how good that is, it's difficult to say. People are obviously barely surviving, it's subsistence. But I think that most people would agree that the most serious malnutrition has been averted for the time being."

But the Red Cross is worried that years of malnutrition have made the North Korean population especially vulnerable to disease and epidemics. And officials from the agency warn that this month's harvest will not be enough to alleviate what remains a serious food shortage in the Stalinist nation.

Correspondent Mike Chinoy contributed to this report.


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