As the country continues opening its doors to the outside world, historic visits such last month’s by President Barack Obama are symbolizing a new era.
A parade of high-ranking global health officials also have recently filed through the country, taking stock of what’s left of the health system and vowing to help rebuild it. UNAIDS last month named Suu Kyi a global advocate to raise awareness of stigma and discrimination against HIV patients, a daunting problem in the country.
Myanmar has taken a few encouraging steps. Its new health minister, Dr. Pe Thet Khin, is a pediatrician with firsthand knowledge of the challenges.
In the U.S. earlier this year, he said he hoped new partnerships and collaborations with foreign universities would improve the quality of the country’s health system. He added that infant, child and maternal health was considered a top priority.
He said the country is producing enough doctors, nurses and other health workers but that the quality was ‘‘a bit compromised’’ due to a lack of funding. ‘‘The economy, as you know, was not very good over the past 20 or 30 years, partly because of sanctions but partly because of some mismanagement,’’ he said.
The new government has quadrupled the health budget, but it is still low and much of the budget increase went to paying health workers’ salaries. National studies are also needed to provide a clearer picture of the true state of health, especially from restive areas where ethnic minorities have been at civil war for decades and travel was previously forbidden.
‘‘The system here is so far behind,’’ said Eamonn Murphy, UNAIDS country coordinator.
Myanmar once had a strong health and education system and could recover, he said, ‘‘but it’s just going to take time and it’s going to take a serious commitment from the international community, not just financial but technical.’’
Off the rocky, rutted dirt track in a faraway corner of the Delta where midwife Nwe works, UNICEF — not the government — has been running a program that provides vitamin- and mineral-packed sachets called Sprinkles to 3,000 children under age 3. The micronutrients are added to food to help ward off anemia caused by a lack of iron in an area of the country routinely hit by flooding and disasters — Cyclone Nargis killed more than 100,000 people in 2008.
Nwe quickly rattles off a wish list of improvements she'd like to see: more health workers and supplies, better infrastructure and transportation for staff and patients.
But she’s also quick to note that the government has doubled staffing at the local health center to deal with the heavy patient load. Doubled, that is, from one to two.
It’s a very small thing, she knows, but it’s enough to make her hope for more. And that’s something she never would have dared in the past.
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