New hep B treatment site in DPRK
By Carrie Lee; Robyn Laube – Project Manager Assistant; Medical Officer
Robyn Laube, gastroenterology trainee & medical officer for Hepatitis B Free
Almost two years since the first patients were started on hep B antiviral medicines in the DPRK, volunteer teams have been returning four times each year. During these clinics, the international and local doctors see patients together, monitoring their response to treatment and starting new patients on treatment. Now, there are three clinic sites – Pyongyang, Kaesong, and Haeju.
Since our scheduled trip in March was unable to proceed due to the political circumstances, our June trip was the first this year. It was long awaited by both the hepatitis B patients and the local doctors. Together with Christian Friends of Korea (CFK), over seven days we saw a total of 978 patients across three different cities. Our joint team consisted of Heidi, Terry, Marcia and Stone and five doctors (Alice, David, Sissel, Christine, and myself).
Our clinics in Pyongyang and Kaesong are now well established and beginning to pick up pace, and this trip marked the first time we saw patients in Haeju. Haeju is located three hours south of Pyongyang by road, a beautiful drive through rice paddies, cornfields and breath-taking mountain ranges.
The electricity for our clinic was provided by a portable generator, and the water for the hospital was sourced from a single pump previously donated by CFK. The hospital laboratory contained only basic equipment such as test tubes and pipettes. Plans are currently underway to construct a new building for the hospital, including a well-equipped laboratory.
The patients in Pyongyang and Kaesong are now more familiar and comfortable with our program. They greeted us with warmth and smiles, remarking that they were happy to see us and had been looking forward to our arrival. It was heartwarming to see their faces light up as they saw their blood tests improving, signifying the success of their antiviral therapy.
The local doctors are eager to learn and have a fantastic sense of ownership of their patients. Despite their limited resources, they do whatever they can for their patients. They enjoyed having this opportunity to ask questions and practice their English skills as well as their hepatitis knowledge. They even took time out to play a game of basketball with us outside the hospital!
Our next visit in September will mark two years since the first patients were commenced on therapy, and already we cannot wait to return!
Since this year, hepatitis B treatment has been made available for people in Kiribati, a Pacific Island nation home to 114,000 people. Our team members have been supporting local physicians and health workers to deliver this program via regular teleconferences and training sessions, as well as in-country visits every few months. The remote distance of places like Kiribati makes it challenging to engage in education and training, but with growing mobile and internet connectivity, technology offers a way to make this possible. In collaboration with other organisations with training experience in the Pacific, we’ll be continuing to build on a curriculum for health workers and doctors in order to upskill local health professionals to manage and care for people with hepatitis B.
Recently in August, Sue Huntley traveled to Kiribati and met with health professionals and patients, hearing stories about how this treatment has impacted their lives. In places where treatment has never before been available, hepatitis B has been known and feared as the cause of ‘big belly, skinny legs’ – meaning that people without access to treatment developed complications of severe liver disease. However, now that treatment is available, people have been able to get back to work, support their families, and have a sense of future.
We are truly grateful for your support and contributions which make these projects possible. It is incredibly rewarding to see the impact of these treatments on peoples’ lives and are grateful for the opportunity to share these updates with you!
If you would like to know more or get involved, we would love for you to visit our website, Facebook page, or get in contact with us directly.
Photos by Robyn Laube (DPRK) and Sue Huntley (Kiribati)