Health experts denied policy role

A proposal for Burma to develop a board of experienced medical professionals to improve the country’s woeful healthcare system has been rejected by parliament.

Advocates of the new board were told by Burma’s health minister, Kyaw Myint, that the current National Health Committee was sufficiently placed to tackle crises that have developed from long-term economic and administrative mismanagement.

The proposal was out-voted by 172 to 20, according to Hpone Myint Aung, representative for the opposition National Democratic Force (NDF) in the National Parliament.

But its chief proponent, U Steven Thabeik, said that Burma’s health system is only just adequate in urban areas such as Rangoon and Mandalay, while the isolated border regions have long suffered and “people die unnecessarily”.

He drew on his experiences of his native Chin state in Burma’s northwest, where famine has been persistent and where, according to a Physicians for Human Rights study last year, 43 percent of households suffer from moderate to severe hunger.

The men and women that make up the National Health Committee are largely government ministers with little hands-on experience in the health profession. Hence, according to U Steven Thabeik, the need for experts to guide health policy.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) report in 2000 ranked Burma’s healthcare system second worst in the world, one place above the then war-ravaged Sierra Leone.

Critics of the junta have found little to praise since the new parliament sat in January, the vast majority of which is dominated by junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) members, including health minister Kyaw Myint.

The new budget unveiled last month allocated just 9.5 billion kyat ($US110 million), or 1.3 percent of the total, to the health sector. This equates to around $US2 per person per year. Neighbouring Thailand meanwhile spends more than 10 percent of its annual budget on healthcare.

The health crisis is particularly severe in the war-torn ethnic regions such as Karen state, where victims of the 60-year civil war are often forced to flee to Thailand for medical treatment.

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