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N. Korea health care report faces criticism

By Bradley S. Klapper
Associated Press / July 17, 2010

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GENEVA — The World Health Organization found itself in the strange position yesterday of defending North Korea’s health care system from an Amnesty International report, three months after WHO’s director described medicine in the totalitarian state as the envy of the developing world.

WHO spokesman Paul Garwood insisted he was not criticizing Amnesty’s work, but the public relations flap illustrated an essential quandary for aid groups in states with repressive regimes: how to help innocent people without playing into the hands of their leaders.

Amnesty’s report on Thursday described North Korea’s health care system in shambles, with doctors sometimes performing amputations without anesthesia and working by candlelight in hospitals lacking essential medicine, heat, and power.

It also raised questions about whether coverage is universal as it — and WHO — asserted, noting most interviewees said they or a family member had given doctors cigarettes, alcohol, or money to receive medical care. And those without any of these reported that they could get no health assistance at all.

Garwood said Thursday’s report by Amnesty was mainly anecdotal, with stories dating back to 2001, and not up to the UN agency’s scientific approach to evaluating health care.

“All the facts are from people who are not in the country,’’ Garwood said. “There is no science in the research.’’

Sam Zarifi, head of Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific program, said the group stood by its findings. “We certainly have a lot of restrictions in terms of working in North Korea, but we did our best in terms of capturing the information we could verify,’’ he said.

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