Imagine a healthcare system in which amputations and major surgeries are performed with no anesthesia, hospitals that do not sterilize needles, hospital bed sheets that are so rarely washed they stink, and a population most of whom do not have the money to pay for their most basic medical needs - according to Amnesty International, North Korea has such a healthcare system.
Amnesty International says the North Korean healthcare system is in "a dire state".
Their report, called The Crumbling state of health care in North Korea, includes interviews with North Koreans and health workers reveals barely-functioning hospitals, without medicines, and serious epidemics caused by serious malnutrition.
Catherine Baber, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Asia-Pacific, said:
North Korea has failed to provide for the most basic health and survival needs of its people. This is especially true of those who are too poor to pay for medical care.
North Korea spends less than $1 (US) per person per year on healthcare, less than any other country in the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
If you listen to the North Korean government, the story is very different. They claim they have excellent universal healthcare, free for everybody. However, Amnesty International learnt from many witnesses that this is not true - people in North Korea have had to pay for all the services since the 1990s. For a basic consultation, a North Korean doctor is usually paid by barter with alcohol, food or tobacco; for tests and surgery, though, they appear to prefer cash.
According to the report, a significant number of North Koreans go straight to the markets to get their medications and do not bother going to the doctor. They self-medicate according to what they and their friends know, plus feedback from market vendors. A highly addictive narcotic painkiller that many thought of as a cure-all had to be banned by authorities.
Catharine Baber said:
The government's failure to provide basic education about using medication is especially worrying as North Korea fights a tuberculosis (TB) epidemic. A growing number of patients have developed a resistance to first-line anti-TB drugs. The North Korean people are in critical need of medical and food aid. It is crucial that aid to North Korea is not used as a political football by donor countries.
Donor countries are urged by Amnesty International to continue providing humanitarian aid to North Korea through the United Nations. The organizations also urges donors to base their donations on need, rather than political considerations.
Food shortages are a permanent way of life in North Korea. The price of rice has more than doubled since December 2009 after the North Korean government's disastrous currency revaluation. Thousands of people starved to death between January and February this year in just one province, Amnesty International reports. Things are so bad that many people have to resort to eating tree bark, grass and roots. Severe malnutrition has brought back tuberculosis in a big way.
Catharine Baber said:
International law, including covenants ratified by North Korea, demands that the government provide adequate levels of food and health care to its population, and to seek international cooperation and assistance when it cannot.
"North Korea: The crumbling state of health care in North Korea" (PDF)
Source: Amnesty International
Written by Christian Nordqvist