West News Wire: On Thursday, North Korea announced a new “epidemic” of an intestinal disease, an unusual announcement from a country already dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak and severe economic hardship.

It’s unclear how many people have been infected in southwestern Haeju city, which the official Korean Central News Agency described as “an acute enteric epidemic.”

The disease was not named, but enteric refers to gastrointestinal illnesses like typhoid, dysentery, and cholera, which are caused by germs in contaminated food or water or contact with infected people’s faeces. In North Korea, where there are few water treatment facilities and the public health system has been largely broken for decades, such diseases are common.

Some observers said the purpose of the announcement was not so much to report the infections themselves as to mention that leader Kim Jong Un donated medicine from his personal stock an apparent effort to burnish his image at a moment of extreme hardship.

The official Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim donated medicine from what it referred to as his family’s reserves. The country’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper carried a front-page photo showing Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, looking at saline solutions and medicine that the paper said they donated.

Last month, North Korea reported a rising number of patients with fever. At the time, South Korea’s spy agency said that “a considerable number” of the cases included those sick with measles, typhoid and whooping cough.

KCNA said Thursday more than 4.5 million out of the country’s 26 million people have fallen ill due to an unidentified fever and 73 died. The country, which apparently lacks coronavirus test kits, has identified only a fraction of those as confirmed COVID-19 cases. Many foreign experts question the North’s death toll, saying that’s likely underreported to protect Kim from any political damage.

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North Korea recently claimed progress in slowing the spread of COVID-19 across the unvaccinated population, though a top World Health Organization official said this month the agency believes the outbreak is worsening.

During a ruling party conference last week, Kim claimed the pandemic situation has passed the stage of “serious crisis.” But the country still maintains elevated restrictions. Some outside experts have said the measures will further strain the country’s already troubled economy hit by long-running pandemic-related border shutdowns and U.N. sanctions.


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