The soldier was found last week with gunshot wounds. Humans get worms by eating uncooked vegetables grown with untreated faeces. North Korea has no resources for a modern health service, but refuses to admit poor health and nutrition conditions to protect its image.
Seoul (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The North Korean soldier who was shot by North Korean guards whilst fleeing across the intra-Korean border has an extremely high level of parasites in his intestines.
In addition to worsening the soldier’s medical condition, the presence of parasitic worms reflects the worrying state of North Korea’s humanitarian situation.
South Korean soldiers found the defector on 13 November under a pile of leaves, bleeding from six gunshot wounds.
He was brought to South Korean doctors, and has spent his first days in South Korea unconscious, sedated and relying on a breathing machine to stay alive.
The soldier’s vital signs were stabilising this weekend, but his fate remains uncertain.
Doctors say the patient has "an enormous number" of worms in his body, which are contaminating his wounds and making his situation worse.
"I've never seen anything like this in my 20 years as a physician," South Korean doctor Lee Cook-jong told journalists, explaining that the longest worm removed from the patient's intestines was 27cm long.
His conditions are a sure sign of North Korea’s alarming health and hygiene conditions.
Humans can get parasites by eating contaminated food, by being bitten by an insect or by the parasite entering through the skin.
In the case of the North Korean defector, the first case is most likely. His food may have been contaminated because the North still uses human faeces as fertiliser, known as "night soil", Lee Min-bok, a North Korean agriculture expert, told Reuters.
Chemical fertiliser was supplied by the state until the 1970s. By the 1990s, the state could not supply it anymore, so farmers started to use a lot of night soil instead.
If these faeces are untreated and fertilise vegetables that are later eaten uncooked, the parasites can get into the mouth and the intestines of the person.
The parasites weaken the body by taking away nutrients from it. If the intestines are disrupted and parasites are released into the body cavity, they can be a lot more dangerous and much more complicated to treat.
Parasites, especially worms, are thought to be widespread in North Korea, but they also affect many other countries with high levels of poverty.
"North Korea does not have the resources to have a modern medical system," said Prof Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul. "Its doctors are relatively poorly trained and have to work with primitive equipment."
Parasites, especially worms, are thought to be widespread in North Korea. However, they also affect many developing countries where diets include uncooked vegetables fertilised with faeces.
There are ways to treat faeces so they can be used as a safe fertiliser, but many poor countries neglect to do so. This seems to be the case in North Korea.
South Korean researchers who studied the health records of North Korean defectors found that they showed higher rates of chronic hepatitis B, chronic hepatitis C, tuberculosis and parasite infections.
The poor health and nutrition have widespread consequences "but North Korea does not admit this because they fear this will affect their image too much,” Prof Lankov said.
On 21 March, a United Nations report noted that 70 per cent of North Koreans need food assistance to survive and two out of five people in North Korea are undernourished.
North Korea spends 22 per cent of its gross domestic product on the military at the expense of other sectors.
Finding worms inside a soldier is especially telling, the Washington Post reports. This is a sign that North Korea’s food woes affect even the military, who typically have a higher ranking on the food-rationing list.