North Korea is resorting to traditional medicine as the country continues to wrestle with the spread of the Coronavirus among its unvaccinated population, without access to effective anti-viral drugs.
In the early days of 2020, the country sealed its borders to try to insulate itself from the pandemic. But following the outbreak, the country’s leadership has rejected outside medical support. A media monitoring of North Korea’s state media revealed that various traditional treatments to deal with what is referred to as “fever” is being recommended.
For those not seriously ill, North Korea’s ruling-party newspaper, Rodong Simnun, recommended remedies including ginger or honeysuckle tea and a willow-leaf drink.
According to the Newspaper, hot drinks might soothe some Covid symptoms, such as a sore throat or cough, and help hydration when patients are losing more fluid than normal. Additionally, it said ginger and willow leaf may also relieve inflammation and reduce pain, but was quick to add that they are not a treatment for the virus itself.
State media, in an interview with a couple also recommended gargling with salt water morning and night.
The state news agency reported that a “thousand of tonnes of salt” was sent to Pyongyang (North Korea’s capital) to make an “antiseptic solution”. Some studies suggested that gargling and nasal rinses with salt water combat viruses that cause the common cold. But as it stands, there is little evidence to prove that it slows the spread of COVID-19.
Another study suggested that mouthwash could kill the virus in the lab. But it has not been convincingly shown to help humans. Per some research conducted, Covid is mainly caught by inhaling tiny droplets in the air via the nose as well as the mouth, hence, gargling attacks only one point of entry. It averred once the virus enters, it replicates and spreads deep into the organs, where no amount of gargling can reach.
Painkillers and Antibiotics
State television has advised patients to use painkillers such as Ibuprofen as well as Amoxicillin and other antibiotics.
It said Ibuprofen (and paracetamol) can bring down a temperature and ease symptoms such as headache or sore throat, but they will not clear the virus or prevent it from developing. However, state media stressed that Antibiotics meant for bacterial infections and not viruses are not recommended, and at the same time, cautioned that using antibiotics unnecessarily can develop resistant bugs.
Laboratory research suggested that some antibiotics may slow the spread of viruses, including Covid, but they have not been replicated in the real world. Again, a study on a particular antibiotic, Azithromycin, found that it made little or no difference to Covid symptoms, hence, its usage is a likelihood of hospital admission or death. Meanwhile, there are some approved drugs to prevent people with Covid from ending up in the hospital, which are Antivirals Paxlovid, Molnupiravir and Remdesivir, as well as antibody therapies that mimic the immune system. But their effectiveness varies.
North Korea’s health system has been set up to offer free medical care from basic services at the village level up to specialised treatment in government hospitals (most often in urban centres).
But the economy has contracted in recent years because of sanctions and extreme weather conditions such as droughts. Now, closing the country’s borders and the latest strict lockdown measures will also have a damaging impact.
Outside of the capital, Pyongyang, the health system is thought to suffer shortages of personnel, medicines and equipment. According to a report by the United Nations (UN), last year (2021), “Some of the pharmaceutical, vaccination and medical-appliance plants do not reach the level of good practice of the WHO [World Health Organization] and do not meet local demand as well.”
Some reports suggested that many North Korean defectors to South Korea disclosed that they paid for medication or found treatment and drugs limited to privileged members of the ruling party. But state media said it is now increasing production.
Since the virus outbreak globally, North Korea turned down three million Chinese-made vaccine doses, last year (2021), and reportedly rejected other offers, from Covax, the global vaccine-sharing scheme.
South Korea, which borders North Korea, has offered to send unlimited aid to the North if requested, including vaccine doses, health personnel, and medical equipment, but still pending a response. But a recent report revealed that North Korea has sent three planes to collect medical supplies from Shenyang (a city in China). China’s Foreign Ministry intimated that these supplies do not include “anti-pandemic supplies”, but added that the Ministry is “ready to work with North Korea… in the fight against the coronavirus”.