Disease Knows No Border



North Korea is now grappling with the coincidence of no less than three potential animal epidemics. Several may have emanated from the South, but pose much greater risks in the North because of the severe resource constraints on the public health system.

South Korea experienced an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in late November of last year, affecting sheep, cows and pigs; over two million head of livestock have been culled with total costs exceeding $1.5 billion. In mid-January, reports began to surface that the disease had spread to the DPRK, despite efforts by North Korean authorities to quarantine imports of meat, including into Kaesong.  Last Thursday, the North Korean government confirmed that the presence of the disease had been reported to the Food and Agricultural Organization. Subsequent reports suggest it broke out in Pyongyang but has spread to at least five provinces with more than 11,000 affected animals, mostly pigs.

The consequences of the disease are not limited to the direct effects on the country’s precarious food supplies. North Korean agriculture is also heavily dependent on draft animals for both plowing and transport.

The spread of hoof-and-mouth disease in South Korea follows closely on the heels of a near-simultaneous outbreak of the highly-contagious H5N1 avian influenza. Initially limited to the southern part of the country, outbreaks continue to be reported in the immediate vicinity of Seoul. To date, nearly 5.5 million birds have been culled in the South. The North managed to contain an outbreak of the H5 strain of avian influenza in 2005, but again with international assistance. On January 21, the Korea Times reported on a rare outbreak of avian tuberculosis in the South as well, a slow-moving chronic bacterial infection for which there is no vaccine or treatment for infected birds.

Effective quarantine, culling and vaccination are key to disrupting the transmission of foot-and-mouth, but are expensive. In 2007, the FAO and South Korea assisted the North during a more limited outbreak of the disease by supplying staff, equipment and vaccine. North Korea has appealed to the FAO for emergency assistance. (By coincidence, a joint FAO/World Food Program team is currently in the country doing a food assessment). But Seoul does not appear in any hurry to assist following the continuing stalemate in North-South talks.

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