Making a difference for mothers living with HIV in Myanmar
Maryknoll Sister Mary Grenough teaches volunteers how to give treatment and refers serious cases to nearby hospitals
As part of a community health program, Sister Mary Grenough, left, and her assistant coordinator Juliana Aye Thandar visit the home of a woman with a heart condition. (Photo by Sean Sprague/Maryknoll Magazine)
"Come and meet the people and see how they live," says Sister Mary Grenough, as she guides visitors through the Hlaing Tharyar shantytown in Myanmar's largest city, Yangon.
At 83, the Maryknoll nun has lost none of the passion and vigor that first led her to serve the poor of this Southeast Asian nation 11 years ago.
"Many can't even afford adequate food, health care or schooling," Sister Grenough says, weaving her way through the narrow, noisy and dusty streets lined with bamboo huts, many with tiny "stores" extending onto the street.
Tens of thousands of people from Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta moved into this industrial zone after Cyclone Nargis destroyed their homes in 2008. They came to Yangon seeking employment, education and health care. Instead, they met factory owners seeking cheap labor.
Dismayed by the frequent birth of babies with HIV throughout the country, which she knew could be prevented by identifying and treating mothers, Sister Grenough, a registered nurse with special training in maternal child care, started a community-based health program, "Mary's Dream," in Hlaing Tharyar in 2014 with initial funding from her family back in the United States.
The program, part of the national Myanmar Catholic HIV/AIDS Network that Sister Grenough also started in 2010, targets 328 households in the dense slum. The nun and her staff work right in the people's ramshackle homes, teaching volunteers how to give treatment and referring serious cases to the nearby hospitals.
Of 53 pregnant women who joined the program, only four had sought prenatal care. Most needed medicine for anemia, vitamin deficiencies or high blood pressure and four needed life-saving cesarean section surgery.
The women lived within two miles of the hospital but couldn't even afford the US$6 it costs to enroll in the government's prenatal care program.
Sister Grenough and her team ease such burdens through a microfinance program. After a five-day workshop, 15 families were chosen for the program that allows participants access to small loans for income-generating activities at a low rate of interest.
Ye Ye Win, a 38-year-old housewife and accountant for the microfinance program, says the program started with a capital of 700,000 kyats (US$637). Now members are able to save about US$3 each month instead of increasing their debts. They are eligible for loans at 2 percent interest compared to commercial rates of 20 percent.
A small percentage of the program proceeds is set aside for community needs such as enrolling women in the government's prenatal program.
"It fosters community spirit as we share our problems and discuss how to solve problems together," Ye Ye Win says. "It gives us confidence to continue it as a sustainable program."
In Mary's Dream's first year, four people living with HIV received treatment. "Before I was treated I couldn't walk or even sit up on a chair," says one of the women, Aye Aye, who was suffering from tuberculosis. "I had to take TB medicine for six months before getting antiretroviral therapy from a government-run hospital."
A nurse examines a baby as part of a community-based health program called "Mary's Dream." (Photo by Sean Sprague/Maryknoll Magazine)
The 42-year-old says she received a loan of 50,000 kyats (about US$45) and was able to open a shop in front of her 10-by-15-foot bamboo hut. She now sells betel nut, snacks and cold drinks. Her husband, who is also living with HIV, is a day laborer and earns the official minimum wage of 380,000 kyats (about US$3) when he is able to work.
"I am so thankful to Sister Mary's team who helped me and motivated me," says Aye Aye. "I am determined to continue this work."
Sister Grenough's team collaborates with the Myanmar Interfaith Network for HIV/AIDS in other activities, including an annual candlelight memorial service and World AIDS Day activities. These events provide an opportunity for Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians to pool their resources and learn to appreciate and trust each other.
"The interaction of people regardless of religion and ethnic backgrounds is needed to obtain essential services," says Sister Grenough.
While problems of civil war and internally displaced people grab headlines, Myanmar still has one of the highest rates of new HIV cases in Asia. In 2014, UNAIDS estimated the number of people living with HIV in Myanmar was about 210,000 — or one in every 200. About 120,000 are not receiving treatment, if they are even aware they have the disease.
"Foreign donors are now funding what they consider other priorities like emergency relief for the many internally displaced people and disaster response," says Bishop Alexander Pyone Cho, chairman of the Commission for Health Pastoral Care of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Myanmar.
Bishop Cho says MCHAN's work has helped the local church throughout Myanmar become more aware of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and to focus on education for prevention and care of all who are suffering from the virus, regardless of their religion or ethnic background.
In Myanmar health care is almost non-existent for the rural poor and is limited even in cities. For more than five decades, government spending on health care was the lowest in Southeast Asia. In a 2013 World Health Organization report, Myanmar came last in a list of 190 countries for overall health system performance.
Nevertheless, Sister Grenough's "dream" continues. National elections in November 2015 brought the opposition National League for Democracy to power and there is hope the new leaders will improve the lives of the common people.
*The names of participants of the Mary's Dream program have been changed to protect their identities.
This is an edited version of the article that also appeared in maryknollmagazine.org.
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