I work in Goyang, a malaria risk area, near the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The southern parts of the DMZ in South Korea tend to have a high incidence of malaria apparently due to high malaria incidence and lack of antibiotics such as Primaquine in North Korea.
|Shin Hyun-young, public relations director at the Association of Healthcare for Korean Unification (Family Medicine Department at Myongji Hospital)|
Infectious disease has been a significant issue in inter-Korean exchanges. When the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) hit the nation in 2003, the South suspended its tour program visiting the North’s Mt. Geumgang. During the 2009 flu pandemic, Seoul provided Tamiflu for Pyongyang. During the 2015 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak, the South aided the North with thermal sensing cameras and masks.
According to the Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018, the two Koreas agreed to strengthen cooperation in the public health area including measures to prevent the spread of contagious diseases. Since the 2007 inter-Korean summit, it took 11 years for the two Koreas to see progress in the public health sector.
The more inter-Korean exchanges become lively, the more infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis and malaria in the North are likely to spread to the South. The enhancement of inter-Korean partnership for a joint response to infectious diseases should become a basis for sustainable cooperation in the public health field. I hope that Seoul will come up with detailed execution plans, as well as a legal and institutional basis to do so.
The parasites and corn grains found in the intestines of a North Korean soldier who defected to the South through DMZ late last year indirectly revealed the poor healthcare situation of the North.
Maternal and infant mortality rates in the North are more than eight times higher than those of the South. Malnutrition still accounts for a high proportion among the causes of child mortality. The difference in life expectancy between the two Koreas is 12 years for males and 11 years for females. The health gap has widened in the past 73 years since the separation of the Korean Peninsula.
Just as West Germany and East Germany made healthcare agreements to narrow the health gap 16 years ahead of the reunification, it is time for us to start preparing for the formation of an inter-Korean health community.
As the North also entered the era of aging, the country’s mortality rate, caused by cardiovascular diseases due to chronic diseases, is going up. The two Koreas have some similarities in community healthcare.
The North operates free medical service by having a physician take care of 120-130 households and focuses on preventive medicine. The South aims to provide comprehensive and sustainable care. If the South’s advanced healthcare is combined with the North’s strengths, the two will be able to create synergy in building a joint health community.
Under North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s policy to put more emphasis on science and technology, the country has been witnessing a sea of change in the public health sector --aggressively seeking to establish large-sized hospitals, medical research labs, and factories to produce medical products.
If the two Koreas share clinical experiences and boost academic exchanges through alliances between medical schools and hospitals, the formation process of an inter-Korean health community will become a new medical field with a significant value. Studying differences in disease patterns between the two Koreas due to differences in living environment, despite the same ethnicity, will offer a very high academic value.
I hope that such research will provide a solution to the mutual understanding between the two Koreas and provide an effective and systematic solution for convergence in the public health areas.
Especially when the South’s public health is facing challenges due to severe competition for sizing up among private and public medical institutions, medicine in a reunited Korea will be new hope for the next generations.
A recent survey on medical students showed that the more they were interested in the reunification of Korea, the more their attitude were positive toward healthcare reunification. The government should give more opportunities for medical students to participate in efforts to form an inter-Korean health community.
Let’s draw a new map in the public health sector designed to form a joint health community, so that young healthcare professionals can play a significant role in contributing to the peace and coexistence on the Korean Peninsula.
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