Myanmar to Provide Free Treatment to Half of HIV/AIDS Patients by 2016

myanmar-aids-clinic-feb-2013.jpg An HIV patient lies on a mat as he is administered medicine through an intravenous infusion at a clinic on the outskirts of Yangon, Feb. 15, 2013.

Myanmar has pledged to provide free treatment to around half of the country’s patients affected by HIV and AIDS by 2016, as civil society groups called on the government to increase efforts to meet upcoming global eradication targets on World AIDS Day.

Health Minister Than Aung told reporters in the capital Naypyidaw on Monday that the government would spend around U.S. $5 million next year on antiretroviral therapy (ART) for nearly all of the people affected with HIV/AIDS in Myanmar that are not already receiving the treatment.

“According to our records from June, more than 120,000 HIV/AIDS patients [are not receiving ART] and around 75,000 patients have been getting it for free through local and international organizations in 2014,” he said at a press conference to mark the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 27th annual World AIDS Day.

“We plan to provide free ART treatment to 111,000 HIV/AIDS patients [in 2016].”

According to the United Nations AIDS (UNAIDS) agency, some 190,000 people in Myanmar were living with HIV in 2013.

Sit Naing, Myanmar country director for the U.K.-based Marie Stopes organization, welcomed the announcement, but told RFA’s Myanmar Service that it is time for the government to increase the portion of its health care budget allocated to tackling HIV/AIDS in the nation from a mere four percent.

“This is the time to debate an increase in the [share of the] health care budget because ART has mostly been provided from [foreign donors],” he said.

“The government has done little domestically to provide enough ART.”

Meeting targets

Ahead of World AIDS Day, France-based Doctors Without Borders (MSF) released a statement commending Myanmar’s health authorities in their efforts to take control of diagnosis and treatment, and support the global “Getting to Zero” campaign, which targets zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths by 2016.

But MSF called for increased support for the Ministry of Health’s National AIDS program to meet the 2016 targets, together with improving the quality of care for people living with HIV/AIDS in the country.

“MSF urges all organizations and international partners involved in supporting the fight against HIV/AIDS to accelerate efforts to assist the Myanmar health authorities to adapt their HIV/AIDS strategies to reflect the realities of the significant challenges ahead,” the statement said.

It noted that while Myanmar is currently on track to reach the 2016 targets, last year the WHO expanded the criteria for people with HIV/AIDS that qualify for treatment, which it said will lead to a large expansion in the number of patients requiring ART and related medical care in the country, and impose extra challenges on existing constraints.

MSF also noted that as Myanmar develops economically on the back of reforms initiated by President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government since taking power from the former military junta in 2011, the country may not qualify for the same level of international donor money and resources to fund its health system in the future.

“In close collaboration with the Ministry of Health’s National AIDS Program, MSF firmly believes the way forward in this situation is adapting and innovating in the way HIV/AIDS is addressed in Myanmar,” MSF Myanmar country health director Nana Zarkua said.

Zarkua said Myanmar needs to scale up treatment, strengthen human resources, and improve the overall health and laboratory infrastructure in the country to better address the problem of HIV/AIDS in the country.

Furthermore, he said, it is “crucial” that changes are made in the delivery of HIV/AIDS services, such as restructuring health staff duties relating to HIV/AIDS and accelerating the decentralization of medical services for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Reported by Win Naung Toe and Moe Kyaw for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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