The news that comes out of Burma generally doesn’t fall in the optimistic category. Anti-Muslim violence, flare-ups between the Burmese government and ethnic armies and reports of activists and dissidents being jailed paint a grim picture of the political and human rights situation.
A piece of encouraging news, however, is that Burma’s HIV/AIDS infection rate is on the decline. But this, like so many other promising stories coming out of the country, is tainted by deeper, related, concerns. HIV/AIDS is still the number one disease of concern in the country, followed by malaria and tuberculosis. Burma has one of the highest HIV rates in Asia, and a scarcity of medicine means this continues to be a very real problem in the country.
Those who have HIV struggle to access treatment and medication, often until their condition is quite advanced. A lack of anti-retroviral (ART) drugs in the country means that people must wait until they are so sick their quality of life begins to deteriorate before they might even have a chance at getting medicine.
A guide at the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot, Thailand, which provides free health services to Burmese migrants in Thailand and those who cross the border simply for medical care, said that while clinic staff can test for HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, they do not have the resources to treat those infected. In many cases, she said, those who are diagnosed with these diseases are sent back to Burma. However, the number of medications there are so limited that only those in advanced stages can access treatment.
According to the Myanmar National Strategic Plan 2011-2015, only 28 percent of those infected with HIV were receiving treatment as of 2009. The report stated that a large number of those infected were sex workers, which highlights the risk of having such a low treatment rate, as these sex workers are likely to be sleeping with high numbers of clients and potentially passing on the infection. The other two major at-risk groups are men who have sex with men and intravenous drug users.
The Global Post reported in 2012 that in addition to the scarcity of ARTs, gaining access to those medicines is further complicated because only two hospitals in the country distribute them. The Global Post writer also noted that ART distribution is limited to people living in certain townships, making it even more difficult for those in need to get them.
UNAIDS estimated that in 220,000 people in Burma were infected with HIV/AIDS, that 16,000 died from the disease and 74,000 were orphaned because of it.
While a small segment of the population is infected, the problems are serious. The fact that so little medication is available is a veritable death sentence for thousands of people living with HIV/AIDS. Because they don’t get treatment before the disease advances, they have an increased likelihood of transmitting the virus, perpetuating the problem.
Nonetheless, in 2012, the Burmese government declared that it aims to have an HIV-free generation of children by 2015. This can be achieved through providing early treatment to pregnant mothers who have the virus; getting them anti-retroviral treatment early in the pregnancy can reduce the risk of passing the virus on to the child to five percent, according to UNAIDS. The organization reported that in 2011, “84% of the estimated 3700 pregnant women living with HIV received antiretroviral prophylaxis to prevent transmission of HIV to their babies.” They went on to note, however, that less than one third of pregnant women in the country are tested for HIV, which means large swaths of those preparing to give birth could be at risk of passing it on.
As part of its plan to eliminate HIV in children, the government plans to broaden its reach with testing services to more women.
Burma’s Minister of Health, Professor Dr Pe Thet Khin, has been quoted as saying that his department believes that by 2015 children in Burma can be born free of HIV and their mothers can remain healthy to raise them, according to UNAIDS.
But there is reason for skepticism with these goals. A lack of funding has been a consistent problem when it comes to getting HIV/AIDS patients the medicines they need, and a lack of information also contributes to its spread. If the Burmese government wants to rid their country of AIDS, these things will need to be addressed as fundamentals in the fight against this disease.
And as is the case for HIV/AIDS patients around the world, there is also the issue of social stigma that comes with the virus.
Reuters reported last year on the loneliness and abandonment many face when their conditions become known.