GENEVA (Reuters) - North Korea has reduced deaths from surgery and among women in childbirth under a program funded by South Korea that is building trust across the divided peninsula, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.
Rates of deadly diarrheal disease in children have fallen dramatically under the project, which has provided training to 6,000 North Korean doctors, the United Nations agency said.
The program, begun in late 2006, has benefited 7 million people in the destitute North, whose wobbly economy has been hit by U.N. sanctions imposed after its nuclear test last year.
“It is a very cost-effective means to reduce mortality,” Dr. Eric Laroche, WHO assistant director-general for health action in crises, told a news briefing.
“I’ve spent 30 years in the field and you don’t always get such a high rate of return on investment,” the French aid veteran said after a four-day trip to the reclusive country.
Seoul has donated about $30 million so far and allocated a further $13 million for this year, Laroche said.
Four provincial hospitals — two pediatric and two maternity — have been renovated and supplied with medicines and laboratory equipment, a WHO statement said. Hospitals in 80 of the 220 counties and rural clinics have also been upgraded.
“Reductions have been extremely dramatic, with the number of deaths during operations falling by 73.4 percent in two years,” Laroche said, citing evaluations by the University of Melbourne.
Post-operation deaths were halved in the same period of 2007-2009, and maternal mortality also dropped substantially.
North and South Korea jointly battled malaria last year in the demilitarized zone, and Seoul sent the anti-viral Tamiflu to Pyongyang to treat H1N1 flu cases, according to Laroche.
“It is important to build trust between the two countries. When you start sharing data even at a technical level, it has consequences for reunification and to build peace,” he said.
The 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice but no peace treaty. Ties between the two sides have improved since 2000.
News reports said last month North Koreans were starving to death and unrest was growing as last year’s currency revaluation caused prices to soar.
A famine in the late 1990s killed about five percent of the population, which now stands at some 23 million.
The WHO had no fresh information on malnutrition rates, but Laroche said stunting of children’s growth remained a problem.
Some 40,000 North Korean children under five become acutely malnourished each year, UNICEF said in a report last month.
The U.N.’s World Food Program says 6.2 million people in North Korea need food aid, but it is only able to reach 1.5 million, mainly young children and women, due to lack of funds.
“Most North Koreans are eating a very poor daily diet of only maize, rice and vegetables. Their diet is dangerously lacking in protein, fat, vitamins and minerals,” WFP spokeswoman Emilia Casella told Reuters.
Pneumonia, diarrheal disease and respiratory infections are the main causes of death and illness in children, Laroche said.
Senior North and South Korean health officials met last month in India, the first such high-level meeting despite the proximity of their capitals, according to Laroche.
“These two people, separated by 100 kilometers, were able to meet for the first time. It is extremely important because we have been able through dialogue to iron out lots of issues and clarify perceptions to build trust between the two parties.”
Editing by Janet Lawrence