North Korea has more than nukes

I was just lecturing yesterday on streptococci, and discussing how the diseases caused by the group A streptococcus (Streptococcus pyogenes). This is the bacterium that causes diseases as varied as “strep throat,” streptococcal toxic shock syndrome, and necrotizing fasciitis (aka the “flesh-eating disease.”) It’s also caused historical epidemics of scarlet fever, a major scourge in many countries from the mid-1800s or so until around the turn of the century, when it started to wane for no apparent reason. (The worry over this illness was captured in Margery Williams’ 1923 book, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” where The Boy suffers from scarlet fever). The bacterium also has–and still does, in many developing countries–caused outbreaks of rheumatic fever, which can damage heart valves and result in rheumatic heart disease.

Yesterday, S. pyogenes was again in the news with a report of a scarlet fever outbreak in North Korea (more after the jump).

Scarlet fever has been spreading in North Korea and threatens to become a full-blown epidemic despite efforts by authorities to contain the disease, a news report said Wednesday.

The disease, which broke out in the North’s northern Ryanggang Province last month, is rapidly spreading to other parts of the communist state, including the capital, Pyongyang, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported, citing unnamed sources.

Lack of medicine coupled with poor sanitary conditions are to blame for the rapid spread of the fever in the impoverished communist country, leading to the deaths among the aged and infants, Yonhap said.

Kwon Joon-wook, a South Korean CDC official, said scarlet fever “could be easily treated with antibiotics but it could become a problem” in a country like North Korea, which suffers from a lack of medicine.

Strep are fairly contagious by close contact and especially shared utensils, drinking glasses, etc., so it does take some effort to contain it when an outbreak is already in progress. Treatment is one good way to minimize the outbreak, but if antibiotics aren’t readily available, there’s the potential for a lot of misery there.

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  1. #1 Lenn
    November 16, 2006

    Yikes! I had Scarlet Fever when I was six. It was nasty, and I missed so much time out of school (about six weeks), that I had to repeat first grade.

    In addition, my heart specialist tells me that it may have been responsible for the mitral valve prolapes that has been bothering me since my teens.

    Interestingly, I caught the disease from two neighbor boys, whose mother allowed them to go out and play while they were recovering from the disease. In turn, while my mother kept me in for (what seemed like an eternity), she wrote a letter to her best friend while I was at my sickest. Her three-year-old daughter got hold of the letter and chewed on it, then came down with the disease.

    So, I can trace where I got the disease and where it came from. Though, where it was before that, and where (if anywhere) after, I do not know.

  2. #2 jspreen
    November 16, 2006

    Scarlet fever has been spreading in North Korea and threatens to become a full-blown epidemic despite efforts by authorities to contain the disease, a news report said Wednesday.

    Oh my God! Might this become the 2006/2007 equivalent of 2004/2005 SARS and 2005/2006 Bird Flu? $carlet fever, hoodda thunk it. And ea$ily treated with antibiotic$ to that! And in North Korea! How convenient! You know what? I think we should nuke the place before the pandemic shit hits the fan.

  3. #3 Seth Manapio
    November 16, 2006

    “How convenient!”


    Right. See, the americans managed to create a false outbreak of scarlet fever in a country where our own media has almost no access by… infecting everybody with scarlet… wait, bacteria don’t actually cause disease in Spreenworld… um… the pharms wanted to sell antibiotics to people with no money even though the antibiotics are cheap and generic… wait, that doesn’t work… um… its convenient because we want North Korea to look helpless to get sympathy for them? No, that doesn’t work…

    Wow. Just when I thought spreen had hit some practical limit of ignorance and incoherence, he proves me wrong.

  4. #4 Nat
    November 16, 2006

    If only they really were $antibiotics$. If the finaincial incentive were there we might well have plenty new treatment options in the pipeline. As it is there’s not enough cash in them so the drug compaines are making the financially prudent decision to stay away.

    If you want justifaction for the close monitoring of infectious agents then reading 100 year old medical journals is a great way to go. Remind yourself why infectious disease prevention and containment is an imperative by stepping outside your 50 year old bubble.

  5. #5 Robster
    November 16, 2006

    Lenn, if it makes you feel any better about those valves, my dad is a scarlet fever survivor too, and will turn 88 this year.

  6. #6 Edmund
    November 17, 2006


    The big scary thing about both SARS and a flu pandemic is that we *do not* have cheap, plentiful drugs to “easily treat” the infections. Your remark didn’t make the slightest bit of sense.

    I think spreen is a bot. Just like the output from the infamous comp-sci paper generator, or the random post-modernism essay generator, once you look beneath the surface of proper sentence structure and seemingly-relevant content, you discover that it’s all just gobbledy-gook.

  7. #7 jspreen
    November 17, 2006

    The big scary thing about both SARS and a flu pandemic is that we *do not* have cheap, plentiful drugs to “easily treat” the infections. Your remark didn’t make the slightest bit of sense.

    If you had read the thread before writing your silly comment you would have known that the nonsense remark is not mine but Kwon Joon-wook’s, the South Korean CDC official hillbilly Tara cites in her exposé.

    To me the big scary thing about SARS and avian flu is that so many people take the nonsense pandemic hoaxes seriously.

    How many doses of Tamiflu already? We must be getting close to world-wide, right?


  8. #8 Robster
    November 17, 2006

    I don’t know, Edmund. If someone was going to try to pass the Turing test, they would have included more insults than hillbilly.

    NKorea is a bankrupt state, existing remora live off of its neighbors. If the epidemic hits, NK will have to rely on outsiders to give them antibiotics. Shipments of cheap generics will do (eliminating the profit motive), probably produced in China by government run labs (removing completely big pharma), but rationing or poor patient compliance of them could lead to resistance.

  9. #9 Lenn
    November 17, 2006

    Thanks, Robster. I’ve come to terms with it. It’s more a annoyance than anything, and my doctor says it’s not the dangerous kind of valve problem. So, I guess I’ve lucked out in that sense.

  10. #10 Nat
    November 17, 2006

    If Iowa truly is flatter than a pancake how can you be a hillbilly?

  11. #11 Brian X
    November 18, 2006


    I know that your anti-germ theory stance prevents you from seeing it, but the bird flu thing is rather open-ended. We know H5N1 is a nasty little bugger — it has killed people. People just downplay it because it hasn’t done anything yet.

    As for North Korean medicine, well, it doesn’t take a genius to read a few DPRK travelogues and realize that Kim Il-Sung’s idea of “self-reliance” is no more helpful to the people than Maoism or the Khmer Rouge. I mean, people joke about Not Invented Here syndrome in the computer industry, where it’s bad enough (just ask Apple Computer), but it gets far worse on a governmental level.

  12. #12 anonimouse
    November 30, 2006


    You are a sick and twisted human being.

  13. #13 jspreen
    November 30, 2006

    You are a sick and twisted human being.

    Yeah, I know. People often tell me things like that. Well, no, it’s not exactly that. People don’t tell me, they write me. People I generally know nothing of and who know nothing about me, except some of my ideas which generally do not fit well into their beliefs. The same beliefs that makes their profession possible. Like virologists talking baby-talk about dangerous viruses flying around the planet boarding wild ducks and causing tremendous once-in-human-history pandemics totaling close to a hundred casualties world-wide!

    I am a twisted person, for sure. I know it because I don’t fit into the straight pipe-line tunneling the ideas of the masses distributed by the main stream media. I just can’t get in man, it’s crazy. Television? I fall asleep within minutes, I swear I do.


    Here’s my website. Enjoy!

  14. #14 anonimouse
    December 1, 2006


    Been to your website. Never has so much scientific illiteracy met up with psuedointellectual b.s. since Generation Rescue was formed. Actually, I like you better than J.B. Handley, because at least you occasionally make me chuckle.

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