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As Myanmar health care fails to improve, poor continue to cross border

Thailand remains top destination for the sick and needy
As Myanmar health care fails to improve, poor continue to cross border

A health worker at the Mae Tao Clinic fills out a chart for a new patient (Photo by Ryan Dagur)

Published: November 19, 2014 04:33 AM GMT
Updated: November 18, 2014 04:34 PM GMT

After six-year-old That Pine had been ill for four days, That Thin took the boy to a clinic in Myawaddy just across the border from Mae Sot in Thailand’s Tak province.

Father and son went there twice, paying a sizeable 60,000 kyat (about US$60) in fees, but the doctors claimed to be stumped.

“His condition became worse. He did not eat enough food,” That Tin, told ucanews.com. “His body temperature was hot, but sometimes he shivered.”

At last, desperate and with no other options, That Tin took his son across the border to the Mae Tao Clinic (MTC) in Mae Sot, where thousands of people from Karen state and other parts of Myanmar travel to seek the health care that remains largely unavailable to them in their own country.

There he learned that his son’s life threatening illness, the one so complicated it eluded the Myanmar doctors, was little more than malaria.

Skyrocketing investment and much-lauded government reforms have yet to trickle down to Myanmar’s health-care sector — which remains stymied by the educational, bureaucratic, and corruption issues plaguing the country at large. The government this year vowed to have universal health care by 2030, but currently allocates just over three percent of its budget on health care or, $11 per person.

Indeed, the situation has barely changed in decades; Myanmar has long suffered a chronic shortage of affordable health-care facilities and qualified medical staff. And what they cannot find at home, patients seek abroad.

That Tin, who works as a carpenter and earns between $100 to $200 per month, says the cost for any sort of health care in Myanmar far exceeds his budget.

“We used to go to a hospital in Myawaddy, but I don't have the money for that now.”

Mae Tao Clinic, located just across the border, remains the principal source of health care for people from Myanmar who either cannot afford services at home or do not have access to proper facilities. The clinic estimates that on average it treats more than 100 children alone from Myanmar each day.

As an annual report from the clinic last year concluded, a “lack of accessible and affordable health-care services continues to be a major factor driving large numbers of patients to [Mae Tao Clinic] for health-care services”.

Families wait at the Child Outpatient Department, where approximately 100 children are treated each day, at Mae Tao Clinic (Photo by Ryan Dagur)


The clinic began operations in 1988 in part to provide health care to the tens of thousands of Myanmar people who fled to Thailand to escape a decades-long civil war in Karen state.

But Mae Tao Clinic cannot treat all conditions. In 2006, the clinic created the Burma Children’s Medical Fund (BCMF), which helps treat chronically ill children by getting them admitted to hospitals in Thailand that can treat conditions the clinic is not equipped to handle.

The numbers of children with chronic conditions has steadily increased in recent years.

“The children who are covered by the BCMF increased from 56 in 2012 to 144 in 2013. From January to October this year, there have been 116 patients,” said Kathryn Delahunti, a volunteer program officer.

BCMF helps children who would otherwise die from chronic illness, with funds provided from donors in Canada, Europe and the United States, Delahunti added.

Six-year-old Htu Htu Lin from Mon state came to the clinic because his family had nowhere else to turn. The boy had been receiving treatment for a liver condition at Yangon General Hospital, but then his parents ran out of money.

The doctors told the family they needed to visit the hospital every three months.

“But we could only go every six months,” Htu Htu Lin said.

The family had to pay about $1,500 total on treatment at the Yangon hospital before their savings were gone.

“We spent a lot … but nothing changed with me,” the boy said.

The poor state of the health-care sector is something that Myanmar government officials have come to admit more openly.

Vice-President Sai Mauk Kham told a meeting in the capital Naypyidaw in April this year that the country needed to improve its health-care infrastructure, which he acknowledged had faced substantial criticism.

He said that despite increased efforts in the last three years, there had been no significant progress in the standard of health care in the country, adding that specific short- and long-term goals needed to be established and pursued.

But the BCMF in its report last year noted that while government spending on health care had risen over previous years, it still accounted for only 3.9 percent of the country’s total budget, while spending on the military accounted for more than 20 percent.

Local and international human rights groups have also noted the failure to make health care a national priority.

“What we have seen up to now is that the government has not had the will to seriously tackle this problem,” said Naing Min of the Committee for the Protection and Promotion of Child Rights based in Mae Sot.

He added that this failure would continue to drive greater numbers of people from Myanmar across the border for treatment.

“They don’t have any other choice.”

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