* Poor continue to cross border as Myanmar health care fails to improve

After six-year-old That Pine became ill for four days, That Thin took him to a clinic in Myawaddy near the border in Mae Sot, Tak Province, Thailand.

The father and son paid a tidy 60,000 kyat (about $60) for two trips there, but the doctor claimed to be stumped.

“He got worse. He wasn’t eating enough,” That Tin told “His body temperature was very hot, but sometimes he would shiver.”

In the end, That Tin was cornered and had no choice, and he took his son across the border to the Mae Tho Clinic (MTC) in Mae Sot, where thousands of people from Karen State and other parts of Myanmar traveled to seek the health care that still exists for them Basically unavailable in your own country.

There, he learned of his son’s life-threatening illness, which was so complex that even Burmese doctors missed it, and was nothing but malaria.

Soaring investment and widely praised government reforms have yet to permeate Myanmar’s health care sector — which remains hampered by education, bureaucracy and corruption problems that plague the country. The government vowed this year to achieve universal health care by 2030, but currently spends more than 3% of its budget on health care, or $11 per person.

In fact, little has changed in decades. Myanmar has long suffered from a chronic lack of affordable healthcare facilities and qualified medical personnel. And what they can’t find in China, patients will go abroad to find it.

Tin, a carpenter who earns between US$100 and US$200 a month, said the cost of any kind of health care in Myanmar far exceeded his budget.

“We used to go to a hospital in Myawaddy, but I don’t have the money to go to the hospital now.”

The My Tao Clinic, located across the border, remains the main source of healthcare for Burmese who either cannot afford services at home or have access to appropriate facilities. The clinic estimates that on average, more than 100 children from Myanmar are treated every day.

As concluded in an annual report by the clinic last year, “a lack of accessible and affordable healthcare remains a major factor driving large numbers of patients to seek healthcare at[Mei Tao Clinic]”.

The clinic began operating in 1988, in part to provide medical care to the tens of thousands of Burmese who fled to Thailand to escape the decades-long civil war in Karen state.

However, Meitao medical beauty cannot cure all diseases. In 2006, the clinic established the Myanmar Children’s Medical Fund (BCMF) to help treat chronically ill children and get them into hospitals in Thailand for ailments the clinic cannot handle.

The number of children living with chronic diseases has steadily increased in recent years.

“The number of children covered by BCMF increased from 56 in 2012 to 144 in 2013. From January to October of this year, there have been 116 patients,” said Kathryn Delahunti, Volunteer Program Officer.

Delahunti added that BCMF uses funds from donors in Canada, Europe and the United States to help children who would otherwise die from chronic diseases.

Six-year-old Htu Htu Lin from Mon State came to the clinic because his family had nowhere to turn. The boy had been being treated for liver disease at Yangon General Hospital, but then his parents ran out of money.

Doctors told the family they needed to see the hospital every three months.

“But we can only go every six months,” Htu Htu Lin said.

The family had to pay about $1,500 for treatment at Yangon Hospital before their savings were depleted.

“We spent a lot of money…but nothing changed for me,” the boy said.

The poor state of the health care sector is something Myanmar government officials have more openly acknowledged.

Vice President Sai Mauk Kham told a conference in the capital Nay Pyi Taw in April that the country needed to improve its healthcare infrastructure, which he acknowledged had drawn a lot of criticism.

Despite increased efforts over the past three years, there has been no major progress in healthcare standards in the country, he said, adding that specific short- and long-term goals need to be set and pursued.

But the BCMF noted in its report last year that while government spending on health care has increased from previous years, it still accounts for only 3.9 percent of the country’s total budget, while military spending accounts for more than 20 percent.

Local and international human rights groups have also noted a failure to make healthcare a national priority.

“What we’ve seen so far is that the government has no will to seriously address this issue,” said Naing Min of the Mae Sot Committee for the Protection and Promotion of Children’s Rights.

Such failures will continue to drive more Burmese across the border for medical treatment, he added.

“They have no choice.”

*This article first appeared on on November 19, 2014.

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