A mystery epidemic spreading along some North Korean border towns with China has claimed the lives of dozens of children, a Seoul-based humanitarian group said Tuesday.
The highly contagious disease has sparked a health alert with an estimated five or six children dying every day since April 27 in the northeast city of Hoeryong, the Good Friends group said.
North Korean health authorities have been unable to stop the spread of the epidemic or to come up with an exact diagnosis or cure, it added.
Doctors in the North suspect it may have been caused by avian influenza or hand-foot-mouth disease. "Bird flu is spreading," the group quoted one doctor as saying.
Good Friends, which operates in the communist North, quoted another doctor as saying hand-foot-mouth disease could be spreading from China, where it has killed several dozen children.
The outbreak is spreading mainly among state-run child daycare centers and kindergartens and no cases of adult infections have been reported, the doctor said.
Good Friends said the epidemic had spread to other towns along the border, with patients showing flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat and loss of appetite.
Impoverished North Korea launched an all-out campaign to prevent bird flu after avian influenza spread widely in South Korea this year.
The North has reported no new case since it destroyed 210,000 birds during an outbreak in 2005 and actively taken part in programmes offered by the World Health Organisation.
The South is still struggling to contain the spread of bird flu since the latest outbreak began on April 1.