IMPACT: Myanmar: Poverty, challenges and inspiration

Tracy Parish

10 May, 2016

Burnet Chair, Rob Milne takes us on the road in this fascinating account of his first trip to Myanmar - a country of poverty, challenges and inspiration.

Featured in the latest edition of Burnet’s IMPACT magazine below is an excerpt of the article.

My first visit to Myanmar earlier this year coincided with a watershed moment with the announcement that Mr Htin Kyaw would become President, the country’s first civilian leader after more than 50 years of military rule which will hopefully enable Myanmar to begin to make great progress as they engage fully with other countries in the region.

Burnet has been working in Myanmar since 2003 and employs nearly 130 staff plus supports a large group of volunteers who are critical to the successful delivery of our research and public health programs. Our programs cover such diverse areas as Malaria, Harm Reduction, Maternal and Child Health, Adolescent Health, Sexual and Reproductive Health, and HIV and AIDS. We are working with a range of partners such as 3MDG, Deakin University, The Global Fund, and most importantly, the local Department of Medical Research.

As the week unfolded I became aware of the extent to which Burnet is fulfilling an extremely important role in building and improving health services in Myanmar. We are now the leading provider of research services in the country, most notably in our principal research focus on infectious diseases.

Our delegation also gained a real appreciation of the enormity of the task ahead. Myanmar is a country where many people live in poverty and it’s people suffer from poor living conditions and lack of access to the basic essentials that we in Western societies take for granted.

We began our visit in Yangon (Rangoon), a city of seven million people. The city’s population is growing by one million per year as people move from impoverished rural areas in search of employment and a better way of life. However, this is not attainable for many. No permanent jobs, living in shanty towns with limited access to health centres, poor supplies of potable water for drinking, cooking and washing, and clearly inadequate waste disposal, both human and physical, is the reality of their daily lives.

Visiting South Dagon, which is a shanty town, we saw severely overcrowded conditions, and the lack of public and private amenity. Despite these problems, we were greeted by a group of committed volunteers who explained the work they are doing within the community to help women through their pregnancies, to advise them on sound reproductive health matters, and to assist at the birth of the babies. They have established a Labour Room, where women come to give birth and rest for a day after their babies are born.

The only public hospital in the area is very basic, has to service a population of 300,000 people, and can only deal with births that have complications, so the Labour Room fulfils a vital role in this community. The volunteers have to raise the money to keep it going and this is a real struggle in such a poor area. When we were there the washroom and toilet were isolated by a sewage overflow and there was no money to clear the blockage.

Three schools were visited, all very different, the largest having 1100 students and well-developed teaching facilities. The poorest school had 82 students, no running water, little furniture and covered open air classrooms. Yet the most engaging group of children were met here. The teachers are paid USD$15 per month and most were previous students who returned to teach, even though they had not progressed far beyond Year 10 standard.

Our final visit was to the Drop-in Centre in suburban Yangon, where a significant number of drug users participate in our Harm Reduction program. Peer volunteers are helping identify potential drug user clients and assist our outreach workers in encouraging them to attend the centre for diagnosis and treatment. They are all tested for HIV, syphilis, hepatitis C and hepatitis B. The results of these tests then lead to referral to hospitals for access to methadone programs, treatment locally with antiretroviral therapies where appropriate, and counselling to help them change their at-risk behaviours. Two clients told us how Burnet had helped them manage their addiction and improve their chances of a more normal life.

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