Myanmar Struggles With COVID-19 Patient Tracing Amid Asymptomatic Infections

2020-05-06
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A view of the intensive care unit at Sittwe General Hospital in Sittwe, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, in an undated photo.
A view of the intensive care unit at Sittwe General Hospital in Sittwe, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, in an undated photo.
RFA

Health authorities in Myanmar are struggling to trace the spread of the contagious coronavirus among several confirmed patients who have reported no travel abroad and no contact with others who are infected, lawmakers in two major cities said Wednesday.

As of Wednesday, Myanmar registered a total 161 confirmed COVID-19 cases, six deaths, and 50 recoveries. Yangon, the country’s largest city with an estimated population of 5.3 million people, accounts for more than 120 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Health Ministry data show that more than half of those confirmed to have the virus showed no symptoms of the respiratory illness.

The ministry announced on May 3 that coronavirus patient No. 155 — a 48-year-old man — became infected, despite not having traveled abroad or having had any contact with others infected with COVID-19.

Thein Myint, a lawmaker who represents Tamwe township in the Yangon regional parliament, said health authorities have placed under observation 22 persons who had been in contact with the man.

“The health authorities are working on it,” he told RFA. “The patient is a worker at a bamboo shop. It is possible he was infected by one of the customers.”

Another confirmed coronavirus case — No. 151 from Yangon’s Insein township — also has no recent history of travel outside the country or contact with other infected people.

The woman has said she has been in self-isolation at a hostel since March, according to Wai Phyo Han, a lawmaker who represents Insein township in the Yangon regional parliament.

“She may have gone out for shopping, [but] she said she never went out during the stay-at-home period,” he told RFA.

“She is one of the patients who got infected without having any travel history or without having had contact with other patients,” he said. “The virus infection has become ‘silent.’ It is very difficult to determine where they got the disease.”

Three other confirmed cases — Nos. 152, 153, and 154 — live in the same hostel, and it cannot be determined who first contracted COVID-19, Wai Phyo Han said.

All four are women between the ages of 19 and 32.

‘Very mysterious’

Similarly, patient No. 132 from Mattaya township in central Myanmar’s Mandalay region, contracted COVID-19 despite not traveling outside the country or having close contact with infected people, said Min Min, a regional lawmaker who represents the township.

“We have traced his family members and all their visitors,” she told RFA. “He has no travel history since he was already sick and could not go out. All his family members have tested negative.”

“We have investigated people in his neighborhood and traced all of his visitors,” Min Min added.

“All of them tested negative. It is very mysterious,” he said.

Dr. Win Lwin Thein, vice chairman of the Myanmar General Practitioners Society, noted that five percent to 80 percent of people who have COVID-19 do not show any symptoms

“This is the most daunting aspect,” he told RFA. “There are many people with the infection, but they don’t show symptoms, [so] they think that they are free of the virus. It’s normal to think like that when you are not sick.”

Win Lwin Thein stressed the importance of people continuing to wear face masks, because heath authorities cannot perform COVID-19 tests on everyone.

“An infected patient could start spreading the virus in 48 hours even within the incubation period,” he added.

A 33-year-old Myanmar military soldier from Zeyathiri township in the Napyidaw region also contracted the virus despite no foreign travel or contact with other infected patients, the Health Ministry said Monday.

In response, the defense forces tested more than 300 military personnel in the capital for COVID-19, but they all returned negative results, according to a report in the online journal The Irrawaddy.

This was the first confirmed coronavirus case among Myanmar military personnel inside the country, although five Myanmar military trainees in Russia tested positive for the disease in April, the report said.

Migrant worker woes

As an additional measure to contain the spread of the virus, the Myanmar government last week increased a mandatory quarantine for returning migrant laborers to 21 days from the previous 14 days to ensure they are not infected.

Myanmar migrant workers and nonprofit groups helping them want Myanmar authorities to set up quarantine facilities at land border crossings other than one in the town of Myawaddy, which is the only entry point equipped to check Myanmar migrant workers returning from Thailand.

Aung Min, a migrant laborer returning from the Thai border town of Rayong, said is costing him more money and time to travel to Myawaddy in southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin state to be processed instead of crossing the border in southern Myanmar and heading directly to his home in Tanintharyi region.

Nearly 500 workers have returned from Rayong via Kawthaung, the southernmost town in Myanmar's Tanintharyi region, but they must travel 16 hours to Myawaddy to be processed and quarantined, he said.

Kyaw Kyaw Min, Myanmar’s deputy minister of labor, immigration, and population, said border authorities are ready to process returnees at land crossings once their Thai counterparts open corresponding border gates.

More than 26,000 Myanmar migrant workers have registered with the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok to return home and are waiting for approval from the Thai government to head for the border amid restrictions on interprovincial travel to curtail the spread of COVID-19, The Irrawaddy said in a report on Tuesday.

Reported by Zarni Htun and Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service.  Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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