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Burma's healthcare reaches crisis point

The health of people living in eastern Burma is among the worst in the world.

Health workers have documented that three times as many mothers die in childbirth in eastern Burma than the national average.

They also claim one in seven children will die before the age of five from treatable diseases such as diarrhoea, malaria and malnutrition.

The sobering statistics were revealed in a report released yesterday. Diagnosis: Critical was compiled by community health organisations including the Burma Medical Association and the Back Pack Health Worker Team.

They conclude that the shocking conditions are a result of human rights violations and a lack of state-supported health care.

The report is based on a survey of more than 27,000 residents of eastern Burma. It identifies high birth and mortality rates in the conflict-affected area as "more comparable to recent war zones such as Sierra Leone than to Burma's national demographics''.

"Burma's health [situation] is already among the worst in the world and eastern Burma is really an outlier,'' said Dr Voravit Suwanvanichkij, research associate for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which supported the research.

"It remains a chronic emergency.''

The prevalence of disease shows a system that is severely ill itself, Dr Voravit said.

Only 1.8% of the military junta's expenditure last year went on health care, despite a US$2.5 billion (75 billion baht) trade surplus. The result is a lack of access to even basic health services, particularly in the country's ethnic regions.

"Unless the military regime [is removed] and human rights violations are stopped, people will continue to suffer,'' said Dr Cynthia Maung, director of the Mae Tao clinic at Mae Sot on the Thai-Burmese border, which is flooded daily by hundreds of Burmese refugees seeking medical attention.

"Because of a lack of resources and disinvestment in health, people are dying. It's a crime.

"We want the international community to consider this as a crime against humanity,'' said Dr Maung, who won the Magsaysay Award for her humanitarian work.

Almost one third of those surveyed experienced human rights abuses in the preceding year, particularly forced labour and displacement. The report also states that the abuses are directly linked with the health crisis, as children in displaced families were three times more likely to suffer.

The problem of children and women who die from preventable and curable diseases can be solved through comprehensive public health services, Dr Maung said.

"But unless the human rights violations are stopped in Burma, the health problems cannot be solved.''

Bangkok Post, 2010