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Measles still a killer in Myanmar's isolated Naga region

Avoidable deaths 'a result of years of official neglect and slow government response'

Measles still a killer in Myanmar's isolated Naga region

A health care worker vaccinates a child for measles in Htan Khaw Lama village near the town of Lahe in Myanmar's remote Naga region on Aug. 1. (Photo supplied)

Most of the Christians in a remote mountain village in Naga, northwestern Myanmar, would not have expected dozens of people, mostly children, to die from a measles outbreak.

The outbreak began in Htan Khaw Lama village in Lahe township in June. As of Aug. 25, the death toll was 54 people of whom 49 were children.

The spread of a preventable but highly contagious disease highlighted the lack of even the most basic health care, education and infrastructure in the long neglected region which borders India.

There is only one medical doctor and 26 medical workers among 97 villages around the town of Lahe, according to Lucas Thet Naung, a National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmaker for Lahe constituency.

"The government needs to prioritize basic health care, good communication systems and food security in the Naga region," said Thet Naung.

He also blamed the slow release of data for many of the deaths. At least 38 people died while he prepared a report to submit to the speaker of the Lower House in early August.

The measles outbreak has further revealed that the government's vaccination program has not been carried out in most of the villages in Naga. Now there are plans to carry out a vaccination program in three townships in October.


Lucas Thet Naung, a 32-year-old Catholic Lower House lawmaker from the ruling National League for Democracy. He represents the Lahe township constituency. ( photo)



Bernard Kay Sai, a Catholic and chairperson of the Naga Self-Administered Zone, said that medical woes are also prevalent in Nanyun township where malnutrition and a lack of hygiene leads to health problems.

About 120,000 people — who survive mainly through subsistence farming and hunting — live in Naga which overlaps northeastern India and northwestern Myanmar.

More than 90 percent of Naga people identify as Christians, mostly Baptists as a result of American missionary work during the 19th century.

The Christian-stronghold was neglected by Myanmar's former military regime who ruled for more than 50 years. There are only nine high schools and only three townships have hospitals.

It was designated as a "gray area," because rebel groups operated in the region so non-governmental organizations were not allowed to assist the people.

With the ending of military rule and a landslide victory by the NLD in the November 2015 election, there is the prospect of development in the Naga hills.

"I hope that the government will invite NGOs to work in the Naga region in the near future as food security, education and infrastructure needs to be developed," said Thet Naung.

The 32-year-old local lawmaker has a vision of promoting education in the region. He also has plans to develop the region by opening the culture and traditions of ethnic Naga tribes to community-based tourism.

For Kay Sai, the region is still in transition and much development work needs to be done. The government is planning to pave roads so people can move from one village to another easier and is going to improve the farming system in order to raise incomes, he said.

"We need government support for the development of the region such as health care, livelihood, transportation and communication," said Kay Sai.


Children in Htan Khaw Lama village in Lahe township, Aug. 1. (Photo supplied )

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