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

HEALTH-ASIA: Caught Between Bird Flu and Burma’s Junta

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Apr 14 2006 (IPS) - South-east Asian governments are caught between tackling bird flu and Burma’s secretive junta, which is keener on strengthening its iron grip on power than addressing a possible global pandemic.

On Monday, U.N. officials offered ASEAN governments a picture of how rapidly the H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus had spread in Burma in under a month. ”Up to now, there are over 100 outbreaks, mainly in two districts, Mandalay and Sagaing,” He Changchui, head of the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) Asia-Pacific office, said at a press conference here.

Part of the problem, He added, was a lack of awareness among communities breeding poultry that have been affected. ”The information is not that comprehensive.”

That is no surprise for governments of ASEAN which, besides Burma, include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. In mid-March, when word first got out that Burma had become the latest country hit by avian flu, it was revealed that the increasingly secretive and paranoid junta had kept the public in the dark for days, with no mention of the outbreak in the state-controlled media.

For Burma watchers, a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in the Indonesian resort of Bali on Apr. 17-18 would offer a useful occasion to warn Rangoon about the health consequences of its brutal grip on power. ”You cannot separate the two. The politics and the health issues are linked,” Soe Aung, spokesman for the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), an umbrella organisation of Burmese groups in exile, told IPS.

”Health has never featured prominently on the ASEAN agenda, but bird flu calls for change,” he added. ”This is a trans-boundary issue and it can affect Burma’s neighbours.”

”The threat of bird flu spreading in Burma should be discussed by the foreign ministers without delay,” Teresa Kok, a Malaysian opposition lawmaker who is part of an ASEAN inter-parliamentary caucus on Burma, noted during an interview. ”It is not the time to be soft and be humiliated like (Malaysian Foreign Minister) Syed Hamid (Albar) was by the junta.”

Syed Hamid visited Burma late last month, to assess the country’s progress towards political reform and democracy, but he had to cut short his trip – which had already been delayed by Rangoon – after the junta refused to let him meet pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, currently under house arrest. He is expected to deliver a report of his visit at the Bali meeting.

The threat of bird flu spreading in Burma comes at a time when South- east Asia has already gained notoriety as the epicentre of the lethal virus that, if not contained, threatens to mutate into a strain capable of causing a global pandemic, which could kill millions.

Countries already hit by avian flu-related human deaths, over the last two years, include Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. The global death toll stands at 109 out of 192 reported cases.

The challenge faced by the Burmese junta is seen in a scathing report released, late March, by medical researchers from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at the John Hopkins University, based in the U.S. city of Baltimore. Government policies in Burma ”that restrict public health and humanitarian aid have created an environment where AIDS, drug-resistant tuberculosis, malaria and bird flu are spreading unchecked,” states a media release that accompanied the report.

”Health expenditures in Burma are among the lowest globally, including an annual budget of less than 22,000 US dollars for the prevention and treatment of HIV among a total population of 43 million,” it adds. ”Much of the country lacks basic laboratory facilities to carry out a CD4 blood test, the minimum standard for clinical monitoring of AIDS care.”

Burma, which has been renamed Myanmar by the junta, has an estimated 170,000 to 620,000 people living with HIV/AIDS. It is also classified by U.N. agencies as being among the world’s 22 ”high burden” countries with tuberculosis (TB), due to the 97,000 new cases reported every year.

”In 2005, 34 percent of tuberculosis cases in Burma were resistant to any of the four standard first-line drug treatments, which is double the rate of drug-resistant cases in neighbouring countries,” the report by the U.S. researchers reveals. ”Nearly half of all deaths from malaria in Asia occur in Burma.”

To compound that problem, the junta has placed severe travel restrictions on international humanitarian agencies working in the country, prompting some to leave. In August last year, the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, an international body set up to boost grassroots efforts in combating the three pandemics, quit after Rangoon’s many roadblocks. In March this year, Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) was also forced to depart after ”the military authorities had imposed so many travel restrictions”.

The junta, however, appears unruffled by outside critics as it spends more on strengthening its 400,000-strong army and improving the new administrative capital it has unveiled in Pyinmana, north of Rangoon.

Leading U.N. officials say that the bird flu outbreaks in Burma appear to be beyond what the junta can handle. ”We are going to be focusing on Myanmar a lot in the next few days and weeks, trying to make sure that the authorities and civil society in that country are able to cope better,” Dr. David Nabarro, the U.N.’s pointsman on bird flu, told reporters here this week.

The ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Bali offers the first forum to gauge what the region’s governments may do to deal with their stubborn partner.

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