As fears of Korean conflict loom, health ministry eyes halting outbreaks amid refugee influx

by

Staff Writer

Amid fears of war on the Korean Peninsula, the health ministry is investigating how to prevent an outbreak of infectious diseases in the event of a mass influx of refugees — including North Koreans — into Japan.

Health ministry official Shiho Yoshii said Monday a team of about 10 experts is studying how European countries have tackled infectious diseases during their own refugee crises. The team is due to present a final report around February, she said.

“We will investigate how Japan should tackle infectious diseases … by gathering documents about measures taken by countries such as Greece that have accepted refugees,” said Yoshii, who works in the ministry’s tuberculosis and infectious diseases control division.

The group is taking a broad approach to the issue, analyzing how Europe has so far dealt with refugees from such strife-hit countries as Syria and Afghanistan, she added.

According to a World Health Organization report last December, North Korea reported 21,850 cases of malaria in 2012 and 7,010 in 2015.

In another report, the WHO warned that “the risk for reintroduction and localized outbreaks of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and leishmaniasis can be increased by a mass influx of refugees,” noting that a resurgence of malaria in Greece was directly linked to an influx of refugees from Pakistan.

Yoshii said that while malaria is one of the team’s research focuses, it is also investigating what kinds of outbreaks might be expected with a sudden stream of refugees from the Korean Peninsula. She cited measles and hepatitis A as examples of diseases likely to spread in facilities such as refugee camps.

Based on this and other factors, the team will also determine what kind of and how much medical equipment should be prepared, as well as other supplies.

According to Yoshii, the team includes infectious disease specialists and health center officials. It was originally formed in 2015 to investigate measures to prevent outbreaks of infectious diseases at mass gatherings in Japan, including the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

After adding a handful of new members to the original lineup, the team began working on the project earlier this month, Yoshii said.

The research looking at a hypothetical influx of refugees from the Korean Peninsula is the first of its kind by the ministry, Yoshii said.

“North Korea is close to Japan,” she said, calling the project “a precaution.”