Seoul aids N Korea over swine flu

South Korea is preparing to ship medical supplies worth more than $15 million to help North Korea fight an outbreak of swine flu, officials said.

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The unification ministry, which handles cross-border ties, said the shipment would include antiviral drugs for 500,000 patients — Tamiflu for 400,000 and Relenza for 100,000 — and sanitation supplies.

The aid will cost an estimated 17.8 billion won (15.3 million dollars), which will be financed by a state fund for inter-Korean cooperation, it said.

Spokesman Chun Hae-Sung said Seoul would send the shipment as soon as possible, and definitely by the end of the year. But the North, which had accepted the offer, had not yet set a firm date.

The drugs shipment will be the first direct South Korean government aid since relations soured last year, although Seoul has funded assistance to Pyongyang through private groups.

North Korea Wednesday reported nine cases of (A)H1N1 in the capital Pyongyang and the city of Sinuiju bordering China. No death toll was given.

Observers say the virus could pose a particular threat to the North because of malnutrition amid persistent food shortages and a lack of drugs such as Tamiflu.

Good Friends, a Seoul-based welfare group with cross-border contacts, quoted an unidentified Sinuiju city official as saying more than 40 people had died of the swine flu in the border city alone.

The World Health Organization, however, told Yonhap news agency that all nine North Korean patients have recovered.

Yonhap quoted Suzanne Westman, coordinator of outbreak alert and response at the WHO’s New Delhi office, as saying no additional cases were reported in the isolated communist country.

The first of the patients, all children aged between 11 and 14, was discovered on November 25 and the last case on December 4, she said, adding that three of the infections were in Pyongyang with the other six in Sinuiju.

“All contacts have been identified, put in isolation and treated,” she told Yonhap, adding that North Korea had a solid surveillance system and a sufficient number of physicians is believed to be able to handle the outbreak.

Westman was not available for independent comment.

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