US doctors help DPRK open TB lab

UPDATE: Some additional informtaion from Paul Costello:

Stanford researcher Sharon Perry PhD, an infectious disease specialist, has been working in North Korea with a team of American health specialists to develop the country’s first diagnostic laboratory to test drug-resistant tuberculosis. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as the hermit country is formally known, witnessed a resurgence of TB in the 1990s after famines plagued the country.

The TB Diagnostics Project is being led by the Bay Area TB Consortium, which Perry directs, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington nonprofit group working to strengthen global security. The program came about after a team of North Korean health officials visited California and met with Stanford and Bay Area tuberculosis experts in 2008.

It’s unusual for any outsiders to visit North Korea, but extremely rare for Americans. Safe to say that it’s an unprecedented partnership between U.S. researchers and health officials in North Korea. So far, Perry has ventured there three times and is soon to return for a fourth visit.

I spoke with Perry for a 1:2:1 podcast about her work in North Korea. It’s a candid, revealing interview that pulls back the curtain a bit from this most mysterious nation. I found it fascinating to hear Perry describe the work there and talk about collaborating with officials from the Ministry of Health on this significant health crisis for the nation. The porous nature of geographical borders and the ability of disease to spread easily from one country to another clearly illustrates that we’re one planet and all in this together.

ORIGINAL POST: According to the New York Times:

With help from scientists from Stanford University’s medical school, North Korea has developed its first laboratory capable of detecting drug-resistant tuberculosis, scientists involved in the project said last week.

Tuberculosis surged in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea during the famines of the 1990s. (Starvation suppresses the immune system, allowing latent infections to grow.) But the country cannot tell which cases are susceptible to which antibiotics, meaning more dangerous strains could push out strains that are easier to kill, as has happened in Russia and Peru.

The project began after John W. Lewis, an expert on Chinese politics at Stanford participating in informal diplomatic talks over North Korea’s nuclear threat, realized how serious a TB problem the country had. In 2008, doctors from North Korea’s health ministry visited experts in the San Francisco Bay area. Last month, a Stanford team began installing the new diagnostics lab at a hospital in the capital, Pyongyang.

The project “represents an unprecedented level of cooperation” between North Korean and American doctors, Professor Lewis said. It is supported by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit global security group led by former Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, and by Christian Friends of Korea, a humanitarian group.

Although it will soon be able to grow and test TB strains, North Korea right now has none of the more expensive antibiotics that attack drug-resistant TB, said Sharon Perry, the epidemiologist leading the Stanford team. Without outside help it will also run out of routine first-line antibiotics by July, she said.

Read the full article here:
Tuberculosis: North Korea Develops TB Laboratory With Help From American Doctors
New York Times
Donald McNeil, Jr.


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