Just how bad is tuberculosis in North Korea?

A North Korean soldier patrols along the Yalu River at the North Korean town of Sinuiju on April 11, 2013

Visiting North Korea is by no means easy.

To get in, you typically need to bring an asset that the country’s ruling elite desperately needs — such as hard cash to spend on a canned tourist trip, or a willingness to let the regime wrest propaganda benefits from your reputation as an eccentric American basketball player.

So it’s significant that since 2008, a team from Stanford University has been allowed to visit several times each year to help address the country’s soaring tuberculosis problem.

They have even been allowed to set up a laboratory to test patients.

The most recent visit by doctors from the Stanford Medical School was late last year. The team hopes to train North Korean doctors to control the potentially fatal disease and bring their laboratory up to internationally recognized standards.

“In North Korea, demand far exceeds capacity. But also on a global level, only a minority of people with TB get modern treatment,” said Stanford professor Gary Schoolnik, part of the team involved in the project.

According to the WHO, there are 345 TB infections per 100,000 people in North Korea, one of the highest rates outside of sub-Saharan Africa. The disease is associated with poverty and unsanitary conditions and is uncommon in the industrialized world. North Korea saw its infection rates increase after floods and famines ravaged the country in the mid-1990s.

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