From sex workers to HIV patients, Myanmar unrest poses 'huge' health risks

by Beh Lih Yi | @BehLihYi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 12 March 2021 12:09 GMT

ARCHIVE PICTURE: A three-year-old boy, who is a HIV-positive patient, holds a flower to give to U.S. Senator John McCain before his visit to a HIV/AIDS hospice, founded by a member of National League for Democracy (NLD) party, in Yangon, Myanmar, June 2, 2011. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

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Myanmar's public hospitals and clinics, which were already under pressure due to COVID-19, are in disarray, according to medical charities

By Beh Lih Yi

KUALA LUMPUR, March 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Political turmoil in Myanmar poses "huge risks" to the health of vulnerable people including sex workers and HIV patients, aid groups said, warning that medical supplies could be disrupted as the public healthcare system struggles to operate normally.

The Southeast Asian nation plunged into crisis after the army ousted Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government in a Feb. 1 coup, declaring a year-long state of emergency that has sparked strikes and protests - including by doctors.

Myanmar's public hospitals and clinics, which were already under pressure due to COVID-19, are in disarray, according to medical charities, who said they were struggling to help the rising number of people turning to them for treatment.

"If this collapse continues and gets worse we will struggle very hard to be able to meet those needs," Pavlo Kolovos, the outgoing Myanmar head of mission at the non-profit Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

MSF, or Doctors Without Borders, said it was especially concerned that it has been unable to get additional staff or new medical supplies into the country to meet the rising need.

The group, which has more than 1,000 staff in Myanmar, runs 15 clinics and mobile services nationwide that serve "isolated, excluded and discriminated" groups, including sex workers, HIV+ people and migrants in one of Asia's poorest countries.

There are some 240,000 people living with HIV in Myanmar, United Nations data shows.

Kolovos said the political crisis posed "huge risks for the humanitarian conditions of all people - especially for the most vulnerable who already were unable to get the services they needed".

MSF's current medical supplies could last "several months", he said, adding that the uncertainty about getting hold of new stocks was "very alarming".

More than 70 protesters have been killed since the coup with some 2,000 people detained, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a monitoring group.

The junta has said it is acting with utmost restraint in handling what it describes as demonstrations by "riotous protesters" whom it accuses of attacking police and harming national security and stability.

It could not be reached for further comment.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has also warned that COVID-19 "may be spreading unabated" in areas of Myanmar, which has suffered one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the region.

"The IFRC is alarmed about the risks of another deadly wave of COVID-19 in Myanmar as testing and access to hospitals or other health services is very limited," said Alexander Matheou, its Asia-Pacific regional director, in a statement.

It called for protection for health workers, saying several Red Cross volunteers in Myanmar had been injured or wrongfully arrested during violence and that ambulances had been damaged.

Related stories:

With 'Sarong Revolution', women in Myanmar defy coup and patriarchy 

Myanmar junta accuses Suu Kyi of taking bribes as 8 killed in anti-coup protests 

'How will they survive?': Myanmar coup cuts lifeline for migrants' families 

(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit

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