Exclusive: North Korea claimed to be free of HIV. But infections appear to be surging

Science | AAAS | 6/24/2019 | Staff
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In December 2018, at an event in Pyongyang marking World AIDS Day, government officials and World Health Organization (WHO) staff celebrated an improbable feat: a corner of our planet was still untouched by HIV. North Korea had zero reported cases of HIV infection, said physician Thushara Fernando—at least to his knowledge. Fernando, who was then WHO’s representative to North Korea, chalked up that astounding success to prevention and widespread HIV testing.

In fact, North Korean health officials were quietly tracking a mushrooming AIDS threat. North Korea actually had 8362 HIV-positive individuals in 2018, estimates a report that a team of researchers from North Korea and the United States has submitted to the preprint server medRxiv. The first confirmed infection of a North Korean citizen came in January 1999, the researchers say, and infections have surged in the past few years.

Takeoff - Chris - Beyrer - Epidemiologist - Johns

“That’s an impressive takeoff,” says Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who has conducted extensive HIV/AIDS research in Asia. North Korea’s HIV prevalence “is much higher than I expected,” adds Zunyou Wu, chief epidemiologist at China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing.

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The authors call on the international community to do more to help the country fight HIV/AIDS. And they warn that a spiraling epidemic could prompt North Korea’s government to adopt “austere measures to contain the disease,” including criminalizing HIV status and detaining or deporting people living with the virus.

Collaboration - Root - Colleagues - Taehoon - Kim

The unusual collaboration took root in 2013. “Our North Korean colleagues reached out to us,” says Taehoon Kim, co-founder of DoDaum, a nonprofit in New York City that runs health and education projects in North Korea. “They first expressed concerns about HIV in rural regions and inquired whether we could do anything...
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