Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights

HEALTH-BURMA: Global Fund Back With New Hope

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Feb 26 2011 (IPS) - Burma’s transition from an overt military rule to a civilian administration of retired generals is getting a shot in the arm from a former critic of the junta – the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The Fund that left the South-East Asian nation in protest more than five years ago is returning this year to Burma, or Myanmar. The move follows three agreements inked last November to finance two-year grants of up to 112.8 million dollars against the three killer diseases.

It marks an increase from the 98.4 million dollars that the Geneva-based humanitarian body had pledged during its first foray. The group pulled out in August 2005 citing political interference in its programmes.

Support for HIV/AIDS initiatives is billed to get the largest share, 46 million dollars, with malaria receiving 36.8 million dollars and tuberculosis (TB) 30 million dollars, according to the Global Fund.

“Burma re-applied for Global Fund grants in 2009 and due to the technical merit of the proposals the board decided to approve them,” Marcela Rojo, spokesperson for the Global Fund confirmed in an IPS interview.

The decision coincided with last year’s general election in Burma, the first in two decades. The Nov. 7 poll gained notoriety for its irregularities, prompting critics to say that little has changed since the country came under the grip of oppressive military rule in 1962 after a coup.

“No one really expects the new government to improve the human rights situation, but one practical dividend that must come with the new parliament is increased humanitarian space,” says David Scott Mathieson, Burma consultant for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based global watchdog.

“The Global Fund (entry), given its past experience, is going to be an important litmus test in assessing the new government’s sincerity,” he added.

The significance of its re-entry is clear to the Fund, as it begins working with its international partners in the country, Save the Children and the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS).

“Strong additional safeguards have been put in place to ensure strict oversight of these grants and to ensure the ability of the Global Fund to move quickly should any irregularities be identified,” said Rojo. These include an assurance from Burmese officials that the Fund’s staff will have immediate access to implementation sites.

“Funding for life saving drugs, awareness raising in the most vulnerable populations, and behavioural change campaigns will feature in the package to combat HIV,” said Andrew Kirkwood, head of Save the Children’s Burma office, that receives 28.3 million dollars for its AIDS programmes.

“The goal is to reduce HIV transmission and HIV-related morbidity, mortality, disability and social and economic impact,” he added in an interview.

Burma reportedly has nearly 240,000 people living with HIV, of which 120,000 need life prolonging anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs. Many of them belong to the three most vulnerable groups: female sex workers, men who have sex with men, and injecting drug users.

Malaria has left an equally troubling trail, with nearly 70 percent of the country’s 57 million people at risk, and 475, 297 already infected, according to health reports. TB is as virulent, with some 200,000 cases reported in 2008, placing Burma 20th among 22 countries across the world topping in the burden of the disease.

Dovetailing with the Fund’s initiative is another international programme, the Three Diseases Fund (3DF), aimed at caring for the sick infected by HIV, TB and malaria.

Set up by a coalition of donors from Australia, Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands and the European Commission, 3DF invested an estimated 100 million dollars when it came to Burma in 2006 after the Global Fund quit.

“These programmes have provided 21,138 people living with HIV antiretroviral medication, detected and treated more than 100,000 cases of tuberculosis and treated over one million cases of malaria,” Sanjay Mathur, director of UNOPS in Burma told IPS.

“The challenge to cover all those in need has always been daunting,” admits Paul Yon, head of the Medecins Sans Frontier (MSF- Doctors Without Borders) mission in Burma.

“The pulling out of the Global Fund in Myanmar did not make the situation better for the people in need of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria treatment for sure,” he told IPS. “MSF has always been advocating for international inputs and to get donors such as the Global Fund back in the country.”

The desperate need for foreign funds was brought home by MSF in 2008, when it warned that 76,000 patients needed the life-prolonging ARV therapy but only about 25,000 were receiving first-line drugs.

By then, the military regime’s record on welfare was as notorious as its oppressive grip. The junta had only permitted some 1,800 people to be treated with ARVs in 22 hospitals across the country. The health budget that year to care for people living with HIV was only 200,000 dollars, compared to the nearly 8 billion dollars the regime had earned from natural gas sales from the resource rich country between 2000 and 2008.

“Aid has always been a political issue in Burma and it will be that way now that the Global Fund is back,” said a Rangoon-based doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We need this assistance, because it is a lifeline for the patients.”

 
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