WHO chief: North Korea needs to strengthen health system, pay attention to malnutrition

GENEVA (AP) — North Korea needs to strengthen its health system by modernizing medical equipment, ensuring sufficient supply of medicines and paying greater attention to malnutrition, the World Health Organization's director said Friday.

Dr. Margaret Chan said she saw pregnant women suffering from malnutrition during hospital visits in the country earlier this week.

"Nutrition is an area that the government has to pay attention and especially for pregnant women and also for young children," she said.

"I did see that anemia in pregnancy is an issue in the country," she said in a telephone briefing to reporters after a two-day visit to the reclusive country.

Chan said she stayed in the capital Pyongyang except for one visit to a rural hospital an hour away. She was the WHO's first director to visit the communist country since 2001.

The U.N. estimates that 8.7 million people need food aid in North Korea. The country has relied on foreign assistance to feed much of its population since the mid-1990s when its economy was hit by natural disasters and the loss of the regime's Soviet benefactor.

North Korea, ruled by Kim Jong Il, is routinely described in U.N. and other reports as one of the world's most repressive regimes.

"Malnutrition is a problem but things have improved in recent years," thanks to aid from the U.N. and other aid agencies, she said.

Chan said she did not have nutrition figures for North Korea and she declined to give an overall assessment of the country's health system.

But she said, "The health system requires further strengthening in order to sustain the government's policy of universal coverage, and of course to improve the quality of services."

"More investments are required to upgrade the infrastructure and equipment and to ensure adequate supplies of medicines and other commodities," she said, adding that "greater emphasis is needed on nutrition and on lifestyle-related diseases like cancer, heart diseases and stroke."

She said she was impressed by the country's high rate of child immunization, tuberculosis vaccination as well as successful control of a recent malaria resurgence.

Chan, who met with high ranking officials from North Korea's regime, including its No. 2 leader Kim Yong Nam, refused to take journalists on her visit and only talked to reporters by telephone upon her return to Geneva.