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  • September 2, 2019
  • 6 minutes
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Child health: Cost to young kids of North Korean sanctions

Severe malnutrition rates in the country at 30x global average, study says

Almost 3,000 North Korean children under five years-old may have starved to death due to sanctions and funding cuts, researchers found in a newly released study.

Many deaths could have been prevented, argue the researchers, if global aid organisations such as the World Food Program and UNICEF were able to reach the children who needed the help.

Within war-torn or developing countries front line workers bring therapeutic food, such as powdered milk and vitamins, to people in need. When these items are delivered and administered properly, lives can be saved, they found.

In North Korea the workers’ movements were hampered by sanctions, including a ban on exports of food, restricts fishing rights, banking and financial transactions, and political tensions with the world superpowers over nuclear arms trade, leading to the wave of deaths for children under 5, an especially vulnerable segment of the population, the study said.

“The protection of the marginalised and vulnerable is paramount,” wrote lead researcher, Dr. Kee Park, a lecturer at the Global Health and Social Medicine program at Harvard Medical School, in an online essay for Global Health Now.

Dr. Park, who has traveled to North Korea twenty times, has written widely about the hunger and medical crisis in the country.

His work has brought international attention to the plight of everyday North Koreans, in which he details the scarcity of food and the country’s dependence on outside sources to feed its citizens. In a poignant article for The New York Times he compared the height of his four-year-old to other children, writing that “she, all of three feet, towered over children twice her age.”

In general, in developed countries such as the United States or France, young children don’t often die from starvation. However, in low-income nations it can be common, with the World Health Organisation estimating that nearly 15,000 young children die every day.

In Africa, kids under five have the greatest risk of dying from starvation.

However, in North Korea the rate at which young children suffer from severe acute malnutrition stands at 3.5%, compared to 0.135% for the world as a whole.

When children with severe acute malnutrition are left untreated, the death rate can range from 17% to 50%. Yet even when the proper food and medical care is provided 1 in 100 children can still perish, UNICEF found, and 155 million children worldwide remain at risk due to malnourishment.

UNICEF did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

For this recent study, Dr. Park set out to show how these sanctions combined with political games have led to the preventable deaths of young children.

The research is reminiscent of recent reports out of Yemen, where international shipments sent to assist in stopping encroaching famine were blocked by soldiers, leading to deaths. Over 85,000 Yemeni children under five have died from starvation since the war started, according to Save the Children.

The North Korea study details how funding gaps hampered the ability of front line workers to reach vulnerable children, as well as noting that the UN Security Council’s laborious process to ease humanitarian access “degrades operational capacity”.

To illustrate how these political pressures lead to these preventable deaths of young children Dr. Park, along with research assistant Jeongyoon Kim, calculated the number of children suffering from starvation, which is medically known as severe acute malnutrition (SAM), and vitamin A deficiency, which is important for normal growth and immune system development.

For the study, they assumed that every child being treated for Severe Acute Malnutrition was also vitamin A deficient. In North Korea, 5,000 children with Severe Acute Malnutrition were targeted to obtain treatment but didn’t, according to a 2019 report on the country’s needs and priorities. Using UNICEF data, they calculated that 78,565 children were untreated only with vitamin A supplements. Then, they combined the numbers of children who could have died due to severe acute malnutrition, with the ones who also didn’t receive the vitamin A, and out of those researchers tallied that 1,122 and 2,772 children perished.

“The lives of ordinary North Korean people, as seen here with children under 5, should never be placed at risk when trying to achieve political objectives,” wrote Park in his online essay.

(Picture credit: Roman Harak/Flickr)


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