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(3rd LD) First H1N1 infection reported at joint park in N. Korea

All Headlines 20:31 November 16, 2009

(ATTN: ADDS delivery of check-up kits in paras 13-14 )
By Kim Hyun

SEOUL, Nov. 16 (Yonhap) -- A South Korean man working at a North Korean industrial park has been confirmed to have the Influenza A (H1N1) virus, the first such infection to be detected north of the border, the Unification Ministry said Monday.

The worker, 32, who authorities would only identify by his family name Seo, was urgently transferred to South Korea Saturday morning after showing a high fever at the joint park in the North's border town of Kaesong, said ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung. He tested positive for H1N1 infection late Saturday night.

"He was brought here because there is no facility at the Kaesong park to test for the new flu," Chun said, adding the man has now recovered.

Seo's case raised concerns of possible infection of North Korean workers at the factory park, where about 40,000 North Koreans work for about 110 South Korean businesses. Chun said Seo has mostly worked in his company office in Kaesong and had little contact with local workers at its factory.

Three other South Korean workers who were in frequent contact with Seo also returned to the South for checkups. "All of them tested negative," the spokesman said.

In an Oct. 30 report, North Korea said no Influenza A cases have been reported in the country, a claim that remains highly dubious amid the rapid spread of the pandemic in the cold weather. Sixty-four South Koreans have died of the disease as of Monday.

Any contact with the H1N1 virus could be particularly dangerous to people in North Korea, many of whom are undernourished and may have impaired immune systems, North Korea watchers say.

After its first flu-related death in the country in August, South Korea installed heat detection cameras at transit offices along the inter-Korean border to prevent the possible transfer of the virus to the North. It is mandatory for the hundreds of South Koreans who daily commute to the joint park to check their body temperatures there.

No unusual signs were detected with Seo when he traveled to Kaesong on Nov. 9 for a two-week stay. Seoul officials were still unsure how he became infected.

"Whether he was infected here and the symptoms surfaced after a latent period, or whether he was infected in North Korea, we don't know," a senior ministry official said at a background briefing.

His office and residence were sterilized. North Korea has yet to officially respond to the infection case, of which it was informed on Monday, the official aid. The park is closed on Sundays.

When severe acute respiratory syndrome, also known as SARS, broke out in South Korea in 2003, North Korea refused to admit South Korean tourists, closing down tours to its scenic Mount Kumgang for about two months.

The South Korean government, meanwhile, said it sent flu check-up kits to the joint factory park on Monday to help examine suspected patients more quickly.

"Dozens of easy check-up kits were sent the Kaesong complex to help deal with suspected cases more speedily," a government official said. "The kit can detect infections with 80-90 percent accuracy."

South Korea sent 30 doses of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu for its citizens stationed at the Kaesong park last week.

In May, the World Health Organization supplied an emergency stockpile of 35,000 Tamiflu tablets each to North Korea and about 70 other developing countries.


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