Humanitarian Health Action

Continuing to improve women’s and children’s health in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Monthly Highlights - May 2011

Child in hospital bed in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Improving children's health is central to WHO's activities in the DPRK.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has an extensive and comprehensive health network, reaching even into remote areas. There has been important progress in public health programmes such as immunization, polio eradication and control of tuberculosis and malaria. The proportion of births taking place in health facilities has risen and breastfeeding has become prevalent.

However, there are still challenges in the health sector. Shortages of electricity, water and heating have a severe impact on hospitals and clinics. Only in Pyongyang are health facilities better maintained and more comprehensive and specialized services available. Medical and nursing education has suffered from lack of resources and exposure to new international best practices resulting in an outdated health system.

A number of key statistics indicate the inadequacy of health services. Maternal mortality is at 77.2 per 100 000 live births, 30% of all children under five and pregnant women suffer from malnutrition, and rates of tuberculosis, malaria and hepatitis B remain excessive. The persistence and/or re-emergence of these problems are largely attributed to supply constraints. There are serious shortages of essential medicines and basic medical equipment and supplies. At the same time, there is an increasing prevalence of noncommunicable diseases, especially heart diseases and chronic respiratory diseases.

Since the 1990s, the health sector has received significant financial and commodity support from numerous organizations and partners, including WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, WFP and FAO, as well as the ICRC and various NGOs. UNDP also resumed its operations in July 2009.

During the past decade, WHO has supported the DPRK to re-engage with the international health system and successfully facilitated the country’s entry into global health initiatives such as the Global Fund and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI).

In the period 2011-2013, WHO and its partners – UNFPA and UNICEF – will focus on:

  • improving access to essential emergency obstetric and neonatal care;
  • preventing and managing maternal and childhood malnutrition;
  • scaling up reproductive health care and the management of childhood illness;
  • improving safe blood transfusion laboratory services;
  • strengthening disease surveillance and response systems; and
  • improving clean water and sanitation supply at health facilities.

The health sector continues to rely heavily on external funding. On 19 April 2011, WHO organized in Geneva a presentation on the long-term project for improving women’s and children’s health. The MoPH, the Ministry of Unification of the Republic of Korea and the WHO Country Office and Regional Office presented the financial requirements that will have to be met to sustain the project’s achievements so far. The interventions planned for 2011 require approximately US$ 14 million. A further US$ 82 million will be needed during the next two years.