Myanmar Facing ’Urgent’ Drug-Resistant TB Threat
Twice a month, Min Naing Oo visits emaciated patients at a Myanmar clinic, urging them through his face-mask to keep taking their medicine no matter how sick it makes them.
Otherwise they will die -- and fuel the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis in a country that is already tallying an estimated 9,000 new infections of the hard-to-treat strain every year.
Only a tiny fraction of those have gotten proper treatment, all in the last few years, creating what health experts say is an "urgent" threat.
"I feel it’s important to share my story," says Min Naing Oo, who beat the disease after a 12-year fight, enduring debilitating joint pain, hallucinations, hearing problems, nausea and piercing headaches due to the toxic cocktail of meds.
"I want them to know, if I could do it, why can’t they?"
Myanmar’s health system was basically buried during a half century of neglect. And while there are signs of improvement, in large part because of donor funding, it remains badly broken even as the new quasi-civilian government moves forward with political reforms.
Before military rulers handed over power two years ago, they were spending as little as $1 per person on health every year, and there were few sufficiently trained personnel or supplies, resulting in spiraling rates of diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis, infant mortality and deaths linked to malaria.
In the last year, the Ministry of Health quadrupled its budget - though still far from the amount needed - and has worked to strengthen ties with the international health community.
Experts from across the globe were gathering in Yangon this week for a two-day symposium aimed at finding ways to speed up diagnosis of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, improve patient care and take advantage of new shortened and less toxic treatments.
"We are still in the early days, but the political willingness is there," said Unni Karunakara, the international president of Doctors Without Borders, which hosted the event with the World Health Organization and the Ministry of Health.
"And it’s coming at just the right time," he said. "There is an urgent need to ramp up treatment."
HIV drugs are also lacking in the nation of 60 million, and UNAIDS estimates 18,000 people die from the disease every year, many of them succumbing -- when their immune systems are weak -- to TB.