North Korea Autumn Visit
(October 16th – November 1st, 2012)
The following is a short report on the most recent visit by the Eugene Bell Foundation to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).
This autumn’s trip took place from October 16th – November 1st. Our delegation was invited by the North Korean Ministry of Public Health. It included Dr. Stephen Linton; his wife, Cecilia Lee Linton; Dr. Justin Seung, medical director and tuberculosis specialist; Fr. Gerard Hammond M.M., Eugene Bell Foundation board member; Fr. Michael Roncin MEP, Fr. Christopher Berard(Lyons Archdiocese) and Mrs. Leslie Horne, Seoul Foreign School teacher.
We picked up our visas at the DPRK Consulate in Beijing
on October 15th and took the Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang the next day. We were met by a 7 member team composed of officials from the Ministry of Public Health, tuberculosis specialists and technicians. The North Korean team traveled with us during the entire sixteen day visit. As usual, our delegation stayed at the Kobangsan Guest House, a facility located about 20 kilometers northeast of Pyongyang operated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
On our first day we visited EugeneBell’s warehouse at the Central Medical Depot in Pyongyang. This guarded facility is the main distribution point for medications donated to the Ministry of Public Health. We arranged for transport of medications and supplies to six of the eight multi-drug tuberculosis treatment facilities supported by EugeneBell. Because arranging separate shipment to distant facilities is difficult, we loaded medications and supplies for the two most distant facilities on our own trucks.
EugeneBell has been assigned to North Korea’s two northwestern provinces (North and South Pyongan) where approximately 1/3rd of the population lives. We have approximately 800 multi-drug resistant tuberculosis patients under treatment this autumn. EugeneBell’s program is the only one available in North Korea and reaches only about 5% of the multi-drug resistant tuberculosis patients in the North Korea.
We left for the Sunchon MDR Tuberculosis Treatment Center, North Pyongan Province at 4 am the next morning (October 17th) and did not get back to the Guesthouse until after 10 pm that night. Travel to and from another T.B centers took even longer due to rainy weather and bad road conditions.
At each center we visit the procedure is the same. Our team collects sputum samples and takes X-rays of all registered patients. Sputum samples from prospective patients are tested using the three GeneXperts machines we bring with us. (The Taejon Diocese, Maryknoll and Seoul Foreign School each donated one of these high-tech machines. Within two hours GeneXperts are able to determine whether someone has tuberculosis, and whether their tuberculosis is resistant to the primary drug for treating tuberculosis.) New patients are selected according to the results of these tests. While the other members of our delegation help with collecting sputum, weighing patients, copying medical documents, and taking pictures to confirm patient identities, our medical director consults with the local North Korean physicians to determine which patients have completed treatment. We hold a ‘graduation ceremony’ for all patients who are being discharged. One of our final tasks is to distribute another six-month supply of medication to all old and new patients.
Completing all of these tasks takes at least nine hours and makes for a very long day as we process approximately 100 patients at each center. Because tuberculosis is an airborne disease, all of our work with patients must be done outside as it would be dangerous to be in close contact with highly-infectious patient’s in-doors. This is the primary reason our visits take place in spring and autumn. This visit we only had two rainy days and the weather did not turn cold until our last day, for which we were grateful.
Multi-drug resistant tuberculosis is a difficult disease to treat, particularly in patients who have been ill for as long as most North Korean sufferers. Our cure-rate has risen from about 50% to 60% and we expect results will continue to improve as the program becomes more established. As a consequence, these visits have both happy and sad moments. There are many deaths and some patients do not respond to the medications we bring, despite our best efforts. Someday we hope to have hospices for those who fail treatment but as yet we can do little for them. On the other hand, we are encouraged when we see cured patients discharged to return to their families in good health.
Ambassador Edward Pietrzyk invited me to celebrate Mass at the Polish Embassy on Sunday October 28th. He sent invitations to other members of the 24 diplomatic missions and members of the international community in Pyongyang. There have been six Masses offered at the Polish Embassy since 2010. Attendance has ranged from 48-62 Catholics and Protestants, including children. After each Mass the Ambassador invites everyone to a luncheon reception. This time the new ambassador for Sweden attended the Mass. Though he is not a Catholic, he invited our delegation to visit his Embassy. His wife is a fervent Catholic.
On The Feast Day of All Saints we said our goodbyes to our North Korean Ministry of Public Health team members. We also thanked the employees at the government guesthouse who go out of their way to make our visits as comfortable as possible by providing meals for us no matter how late we return from our visits to treatment centers.
Although we have just returned, we are already making preparations for our next visit scheduled for April 2013. Eugene Bell’s multi-drug resistant program may expand to North Korea’s east coast next year.
Catholics are an important source of support for the Eugene Bell Foundation’s work in North Korea, both for funding and for personnel. Due to North Korea’s reluctance to allow South Korean citizens to visit undeveloped areas, the Foundation depends on non-Koreans who speak Korean to staff its delegations. Persons with these qualifications who are willing to volunteer their time are not easy to find. I hope more Catholics; particularly members of religious communities in the Republic of Korea, will become involved. This is a unique opportunity to minister to people who suffer from a deadly disease in desperate need of help.