Denial and Dictatorship Create Widespread AIDS Epidemic in Myanmar
Though there is no shortage of misery for the people of Myanmar living under a "repress[ive]" military regime, the country's AIDS epidemic is "by far the most serious public policy problem," and one ignored by the country's government, the New York Times reports. Prostitutes in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, averaged an HIV infection rate of 47% in its two largest cities, a figure three times that of Thailand. Roughly 57% intravenous drug users are infected, according to government figures. Dr. Chris Beyrer, director of international AIDS training at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, said, "There is a catastrophe in Burma. It is what happens with an epidemic when you do nothing." According to Beyrer, the AIDS epidemic began to flourish in the Southeast Asian country in the late 1980s, following a "huge" increase in the use of heroin after the country's democracy movement was crushed and "a flood of cheap heroin hit the market." In Myanmar, users share needles in "tea stalls," thereby encouraging the spread of HIV. "Increased poverty and government programs of forced relocation" have led to a rise in prostitution, also fostering the epidemic. In jails, prisoners can exchange a blood donation for food, yet often the procedure is performed using contaminated equipment. The epidemic has even spread to monasteries, where monks contract the disease by using communal, unsterilized razors to shave their heads. A Blind Eye Despite the extent of the AIDS epidemic, which in some aspects borders on levels seen in sub-Saharan Africa, the generals who run Myanmar "are in denial." Condoms, banned until 1993, are "prohibitively expensive for most people." Most individuals cannot afford to be tested for HIV, and free testing is "rare," as is counseling. AIDS drugs are "virtually" nonexistent, as are antibiotics for tuberculosis, "the biggest killer of [HIV-]infected people" in Myanmar. Overall, the country ranks second to last among 191 nations in the quality of its health care services, according to the World Health Organization. The government's own figures have not been made public. News regarding AIDS "never appears" in the media, as the government censors all publications (Harden, New York Times, 11/14).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.