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Nearly 4 million N.K. children vaccinated against hepatitis B: agency

All Headlines 10:09 March 13, 2012

SEOUL, March 13 (Yonhap) -- South Korea has helped vaccinate nearly 4 million North Korean children against hepatitis B over the past two years despite tensions on the Korean Peninsula, a German relief agency official has said.

South Korea has provided vaccines worth US$2.37 million to North Korea from 2010 to February 2012 through Caritas Germany as part of its medical aid to the impoverished country, said Wolfgang Gerstner, a consultant of Caritas Germany.

North Korea began vaccinating newborns against hepatitis B virus only in 2004, leaving those born beforehand vulnerable to the potentially life-threatening liver infection.

Gerstner, who was in charge of the vaccination program for North Korea, said he has traveled to the isolated country 15 times to ensure vaccines were properly stored and not diverted away from the intended recipients.

He said more than 3.7 million North Korean children aged from 7 to 17 have been vaccinated against hepatitis B as part of a preventive activity that will reduce medical costs in the future.

"Every child of this age group was vaccinated, making this project very meaningful," Gerstner said in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency as he explained the successful completion of a two-year project.

Still, he said it's impossible that people can be cured from hepatitis B in North Korea due to high costs. He said there is no data on how many North Koreans have been infected.

Young children who become infected with the virus -- transmitted through contact with the blood or other body fluids of an infected person -- are most likely to develop chronic infections, according to the World Health Organization.

The U.N. health body said about 25 percent of adults who become chronically infected during childhood later die from liver cancer or cirrhosis, adding that an estimated 600,000 people die each year due to the acute or chronic consequences of hepatitis B.

Gerstner said the German relief agency lobbied the South Korean government and politicians after the vaccination program was halted twice due to tensions between the two rival Koreas.

Seoul has slapped sanctions on Pyongyang in retaliation for the March 2010 sinking of its warship that killed 46 South Korean sailors. The North also shelled a South Korean border island in November that year, plunging inter-Korean relations to one of their lowest levels in decades.

Still, South Korea has selectively approved humanitarian and medical assistance to the communist country.

In December, South Korea pledged to donate US$5.65 million for humanitarian projects in North Korea through the United Nations Children's Fund to provide vaccines and other medical supplies as well as to treat malnourished children.

Tensions have flared anew in recent weeks as the two Koreas traded militaristic rhetoric against each other over Seoul's defamation of the dignity of North Korea's new leader Kim Jong-un.

On Tuesday, Gerstner arrived in Pyongyang for a 10-day trip to monitor the German government's latest aid to the North, according to Caritas Germany.

The aid composed of 360 tons of corn, 45 tons of sugar and 47 tons of cooking oil was delivered to the North in January for people infected with hepatitis B and tuberculosis in some 150 sanatoriums across the country, it said.

khj@yna.co.kr
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