In Myanmar, progress is being made to reduce the rate of new HIV-AIDS infections after several years of a national program. But international sanctions on Myanmar are hampering efforts to curb the spread of the virus.
Awareness programs are helping to curb the number of new HIV/AIDS infections
The United Nations estimates a quarter of a million people in Myanmar have been infected with AIDS. Just a small percentage – possibly as low as 25 per cent – have access to the vital retroviral medications.
Intravenous drug users, sex workers and men who have sex with men are most likely to contract the virus. The epidemic each year claims the lives of around 25,000 people.
Low levels of government budget spending on health and international sanctions due to the country’s human rights record have combined to leave the fight against AIDS under resourced.
More and more people are becoming infected with HIV/AIDS worldwide
But at a UNAIDS regional conference in Bangkok on universal access to prevention and treatment against AIDS, Myanmar health officials said there are signs of progress after a national program on AIDS has been adopted in recent years.
Dr Khin Ohmar San, manager of the National AIDS program from the Department of Public Health, says programs to raise awareness about AIDS have had a positive impact. "In recent years, since we have more awareness-raising activities and some peer to peer education as well as working with community based organizations and networks, there are much less stigmas and discrimination since many networks are now even working with our basic health staff and with the community."
But Dr Khin Ohmar San says to sustain the gains made and prevent new infections, more needs to be done to focus on prevention and also comprehensive care, support and treatment for those in need. International donors have sought to fill a gap after a move in 2005 by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS to terminate a 100 million dollar aid grant to Myanmar due to what it called political interference.
Intravenous drug use is one of the main reasons for the spread of HIV/AIDS
But Dr Saw Lwin, a deputy director general from the Department of Health blames the international sanctions on Myanmar for hampering efforts to curb the virus’ spread. "It has an effect on the accessibility of the services. Our country receives only about US $5.0 per capita per year in overseas development assistance. We also need resources for tackling this problem like other developing countries."
Community organizations have been able to step up programs in recent years. Kaythi Win, a former sex worker who works with a Yangon-based outreach program backed by the UN, says the working environment for groups has improved. "I feel the situation in our country has changed a lot." Win adds, "In our community, people have confidence and they also know where to get access. So that’s why HIV is going down at the community level."
But the groups say they need to be vigilant with a government whose spending on general community health has been low, and a general political climate where there is little scope for open debate on sensitive issues.
Author: Ron Corben
Editor: Sarah Berning