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International News

Burma's Leaders Slowly Moving to Combat HIV

April 8, 2003

In Myanmar (Burma), an impoverished nation of 48 million, only two hospitals have AIDS wards, and few citizens can afford the average $300-a-month cost of antiretrovirals.

Many observers blame Burma's dire situation on a military government that has allowed the nation's health care system to decay and that practically ignored AIDS until last year. The World Health Organization ranked Burma 190 out of 191 member countries in 2000, above only Sierra Leone. Burma's life expectancy is 55 years, while the rest of Asia's is 63.

Because the government tightly controls information, no one knows how many Burmese are HIV-positive. UNAIDS estimated 400,000 people were infected by the end of 2001 -- just under 1 percent of those ages 15-49. The junta has long insisted the real numbers are much lower because they say Burmese culture stresses abstinence before marriage and fidelity afterward. The state AIDS campaigns have urged monogamy and fidelity while excluding the discussion of condoms or clean needles for drug addicts.

However, a 1999 study by Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health who worked with the WHO in Burma, suggests that 687,000 Burmese, or nearly 3.5 percent of adults, are HIV-positive.

According to UNAIDS, heterosexuals account for 57 percent of HIV infections in Burma, followed by IV drug users at 22 percent. Tainted blood donations account for 4 percent; homosexual transmission for 1.2 percent; and the cause of the remaining 13.5 percent was unknown.

Some experts blame the international community in addition to the junta. Most foreign assistance ceased after the junta suppressed Burma's democracy movement in 1988 and ignored the results of the 1990 election.

But Tony Lisle, UNAIDS director for Southeast Asia, said he sees an "absolute groundswell of change in Myanmar [Burma] in the last 18 months" in the military's willingness to finally face up to the AIDS crisis.

Back to other CDC news for April 8, 2003

Previous Updates

Adapted from:
San Francisco Chronicle
04.03.03; Rafael D. Frankel

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This article was provided by CDC National Prevention Information Network. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update.
See Also
Myanmar and HIV/AIDS