After being in power for five decades, the Burmese Junta seems to be loosening its grip on power. But its flawed economic policies and disregard for its people have led to a devastating health crisis.
Government hospitals lack medicine and underpaid doctors and nurses treat people according to the amount of lunch money, the fitting euphemism for bribe, the patients are able to provide. The health care sector, despite recently having its funding doubled is vastly under-funded. It is said that less that two dollars are spent per citizen per year on health care. As a result half of all Asia's malaria deaths occur here; the country has some of the world’s deadliest strains of TB; and the country is battling one of Asia's worst HIV epidemics and one of the world's most neglected.
The UN estimates that over the last few years between 15,000 – 20,000 people living with HIV die annually in Myanmar, because of lack of access to urgent lifesaving anti-retroviral therapy (ART). An estimated 120,000 people living with HIV/AIDS are in urgent need of lifesaving ART but in 2010, according to national estimates, less than 30,000 received it.
The main obstacles to a scale-up of the access to treatment is a government which does not itself channel enough resources into treatment and at the same time does not allow enough international NGOs to help alleviate the problem. Paradoxically, international NGOs (NGOs) are now also experiencing funding issues. The most recent round of funding from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has been cancelled – the Western countries did not come through on their earlier donor pledges. For the Burmese, it is a fatal blow. Expected funds from the Global Fund’s Round 11 would have paid for 46,500 additional patients on ART.
While Myanmar’s military government seems unable or unwilling to tackle the problem and NGOs struggle with access to the country and funding, others take over.
Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s party, The National League for Democracy, has long run shelters for people living with HIV/AIDS. Until recently, their work was highly controversial as they did work which was supposed to be done by the State. As a result, they were harassed and shelters repeatedly closed down and patients put out on the street. With recent openness, the NLD HIV activists are able to work more freely and since a November 2010 visit by Suu Kyi, only a few days after her release from house arrest, the shelters are also receiving better funding. Mostly from middle and upper class Burmese who now dare supporting the NLD without much fear of repercussions.
The shelters are much needed. Stigma in the country, due to extreme lack of knowledge about HIV/AIDS, is massive and it is not uncommon for people suffering from HIV to be ostracized completely from their local communities. Also, patients have to live in one of a handful of bigger cities to stand a chance to get into one of the few treatment programs. In effect, the NLD’s two shelters in the old capital of Yangon keep people alive and give them a place to stay long enough that they can enroll in a treatment program. If they succeed and get better in health, they often try to return to their villages and smaller towns and return to Yangon a handful of times a year for check-ups and more medical supplies.