Burma faces AIDs explosion

By Larry Jagan, BBC News, Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 14:46 GMT 15:46 UK

Burma is facing an Aids epidemic that will soon eclipse the worst situation in Africa, according to medical experts in Thailand.

United Nations statistics are at least two years out of date and could be understating true infection rates by at least half.

Aids specialist Dr Chris Beyrer, a US researcher at the John Hopkins University, says UN figures suggest 2% of adults in Burma have HIV, the virus that can lead to Aids. Dr Beyrer says the figure is nearer 4%.

His research, using government's figures for pregnant women and young men about to enter the army, found there were 3.5% with HIV.

Adding vulnerable groups, such as drug users and itinerant workers, and the figure more than doubles—potentially more than 7% of the population is infected with HIV.

The explosion of the disease in Shan state is even more frightening. Dr Beyrer estimates that more than 10% of the adult male population there is now suffering from HIV.

“That's the worst ever incidence of the disease in the region,” he says.

“It's on the level of that which hit northern Thailand a decade ago. The difference then was the Thai Government recognised it and did something about it, whereas the military junta are allowing this one to rage out of control.”


But in recent weeks, both Burma's military intelligence chief, Lt General Khin Nyunt, and the head of state, General Than Shwe, have defended the military government's record on Aids.

And Burma's health minister, Major General Ket Sein, told a Word Health Organisation (WHO) meeting earlier this month: “Contrary to the gloomy picture presented in some reports in the western media, HIV/Aids is not rampant in Myanmar (Burma).”

Diplomats and UN officials in Rangoon believe that, behind this rigorous denial, the Burmese generals have for more than a year begun to recognise that the country is facing a major Aids problem.

At the beginning of this year Lt General Khin Nyunt told the Myanmar Times that HIV/Aids “is a national cause. If we ignore it, it will destroy entire races.”

He said culturally it was difficult for the government to adopt the WHO policy of encouraging the use of condoms, but instead had introduced a mass prevention campaign.

There are signs that the campaign is working in some parts of the country, where people now recognise the terms HIV and Aids. But UN officials and Aids experts fear that, in general, knowledge of the disease and its prevention remain “abysmally low”.

Border epidemic

They have major concerns about Burma's border areas where drug use and the movement of labour is high. Along the eastern border with Thailand and the northern border with China the incidence of HIV has already reached epidemic proportions.

In some parts of Kachin state, particularly where the men have been working in gem mines, there has been a massive death toll. According to local Aids workers there are some villages where every family has lost someone to the disease.

“It is not like other infectious diseases,” said one official.

“Once HIV gets out of control in the population and spreads, it cannot be cured and the genie can’t be put back into the bottle.”

Acting on HIV is also not so much a matter of money as changing attitudes and taboos. Burma's generals maybe beginning to grapple with this—but if they don’t make a more concerted effort it will be too late.