Although Myanmar has approximately 9,000 new cases of drug-resistant TB annually, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated in 2012 that only 800 patients had ever received TB treatment. During 50 years of military rule that ended two years ago, Myanmar’s health system was “buried.” The military government spent as little as $1 per person on healthcare annually, and provided few trained health personnel and supplies. This resulted in escalating TB, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and infant mortality rates.
Although treating normal TB required only a simple, inexpensive drug regimen, if patients misused anti-TB drugs or failed to take medications as scheduled, multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB) could develop. The MDR TB treatment cost 100 times more, takes much more time, and could be highly toxic; for these reasons, MDR TB patients often gave up treatment.
The new “quasi-civilian” government has begun to address the urgent threat presented by MDR TB by quadrupling health spending and building ties with the international health community. Unni Karunakara, international president of Doctors Without Borders, stated that the political willingness to improve Myanmar healthcare was evident, though health spending in Myanmar still fell far short of the need. This week, Doctors Without Borders, WHO, and Myanmar’s Ministry of Health hosted a two-day symposium to determine how to speed up MDR TB diagnosis, improve patient care, and increase patient access to shortened treatment regimens that use less toxic medications.
Myanmar also lacked HIV drugs and had an annual HIV/AIDS mortality of 18,000 people; many of these deaths were due to TB that overwhelmed the weakened immune systems of HIV-infected people.