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Tuberculosis Threat in North Korea

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Addressing dramatic TB rates in North Korea

After famines plagued North Korea in the 1990s, the country witnessed a resurgence of tuberculosis. The disease is surging in North Korea, and an unchecked epidemic would pose a direct threat to China and other neighbors. An unprecedented collaboration between American tuberculosis experts and doctors from the Ministry of Public Health in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea has developed North Korea’s first laboratory for diagnosis of drug-resistant tuberculosis.

  • Interior shot of North Korea’s first laboratory for diagnosis of drug-resistant tuberculosis. Interior shot of North Korea’s first laboratory for diagnosis of drug-resistant tuberculosis.
  • Members of the medical team from NTI, Christian Friends of North Korea and the Stanford-led Bay Area TB Consortium join with scientists and doctors from North Korea’s  Ministry of Public Health outside the new laboratory. Members of the medical team from NTI, Christian Friends of North Korea and the Stanford-led Bay Area TB Consortium join with scientists and doctors from North Korea’s Ministry of Public Health outside the new laboratory.

In an unprecedented collaboration, tuberculosis (TB) experts from the U.S. and North Korea joined forces in 2008 to establish the state’s first lab for detecting drug-resistant tuberculosis.  The medical professionals at Stanford’s Bay Area TB Consortium (BATC) launched the project with the North Carolina-based humanitarian group Christian Friends of North Korea and NTI’s Global Health and Security Initiative  to “fill a critical gap in North Korea’s TB control program,” according to BATC director Sharon Perry.

NTI awarded $230,000 to Stanford’s proposal for the new lab in Pyongyang, and the funds purchased a World Health Organization-recommended inventory of lab equipment. 

The rare collaboration that led to the development of the lab followed a dramatic resurgence in tuberculosis cases in North Korea after the famines of the 1990s.  Between 2006 and 2008, the number of TB cases doubled to 344 per 100,000 people, posing a direct threat to North Korea’s neighbors.

Technicians in the new lab will be able to test for drug-resistant strains of TB that could not be detected by the North Koreans’ outdated method for diagnosis.  The old testing method only identified about one-half of all cases because it could not detect drug-resistant strains.

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