North Korea has said an unidentified fever-causing illness has “spread explosively” as the country confirmed its first deaths from COVID-19.
Six people had died after contracting a fever, state-run media agency KCNA said on Friday, one of whom had tested positive for the BA.2 Omicron subvariant.
“A fever whose cause couldn’t be identified explosively spread nationwide from late April,” the agency said in an update.
According to the North Korean government, more than 350,000 people had come down with a fever since the end of last month, with 18,000 people reporting symptoms on Thursday alone.
As many as 187,800 people are now in isolation, KCNA reported.
It came after North Korea announced its first ever COVID infections on Thursday—marking the country’s first public admission that COVID has breached its borders—prompting leader Kim Jong Un to order a strict national lockdown.
In Thursday’s declaration of a “maximum national emergency,” the North Korean government declared that the “stealth Omicron” variant—a name widely used to describe the highly transmissible BA.2 Omicron subvariant that is now dominant in most countries—had been detected in the capital city, Pyongyang.
Prior to Thursday, North Korea had not reported a single case of the coronavirus, but the country could now face serious issues with COVID-19.
Its population of 26 million people is believed to largely be unvaccinated against the virus, and if the virus truly has not been circulating before now, there would be no natural immunity acquired via previous infections.
Although North Korea’s Communist regime claims to provide free health care to its citizens, nonprofits believe that the policy applies only to Pyongyang’s uppermost classes.
In 2019 a Johns Hopkins University study compared how different countries’ health care systems would cope with an epidemic. North Korea’s health care system was ranked the 193rd least capable out of 195 countries.
Poverty and food shortages are believed to be widespread in the country, with the UN estimating in 2019 that at least 43% of North Koreans were suffering from malnutrition. Limited access to health care, clean water, and sanitation were already putting children at risk of dying from curable diseases in a pre-pandemic world, according to the UN report.
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