Burma Food, Health Aid Sought

The United Nations seeks a massive infusion of funding for Burma's cyclone relief effort, while a leading expert says the country's health infrastructure could be overwhelmed by disease outbreaks in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.

cooking_305 A cyclone affected woman cook in her destroyed house in Dedaye township, some 48 kilometers south of Yangon on May 9, 2008. Polling stations opened on May 10 in parts of cyclone-hit Myanmar, as the military regime asked voters to approve a new constitution just one week after tens of thousands of people died in the storm. The military delayed the vote for two weeks in the areas hardest-hit by Cyclone Nargis, including in the main city and former capital of Yangon.
AFP/Khin Maung Win

A senior UN official has now appealed for U.S. $187 million in aid for Burma, citing “clear, massive need” in the cyclone-ravaged country, as a veteran health expert predicted major disease outbreaks there.

The U.S. $187 million may still be revised, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said at U.N. headquarters in New York. It aims to cover 12 sectors including food, shelter, sanitation, and agriculture as well as other support and services.

Governments and relief agencies have so far pledged more than U.S. $38 million in aid and other support. The Burmese government has pledged $5 million and is providing military helicopters to distribute relief supplies, Holmes said.

“I hope they will step up those efforts further given the clear, massive need,” Holmes said, a day after the secretive Burmese junta effectively halted U.N. aid shipments by refusing to admit foreign aid workers.

U.N. officials currently estimate that Cyclone Nargis—which struck impoverished and tightly closed Burma last weekend—has “severely affected” between 1.2 million and 1.9 million people, with an estimated 63,000 to 100,000 people dead.

“I strongly urge the government to reconsider its attitude in view of the urgency of the situation and to do all it possibly can to speed up aid and relieve the suffering of its people,” Holmes said, referring to the junta’s approval of aid worker visas.

Disease predicted

In Washington, an epidemiologist from Johns Hopkins University with vast experience in Burma meanwhile predicted a second wave of deaths in Burma from preventable diseases.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Dr. Chis Beyrer said cholera, E coli infection, and measles outbreaks were likely, in numbers far beyond what Burma’s neglected health infrastructure is capable of managing.

“We have been for a long time dealing with the reality—those of us who have been involved in health and human rights in this country—that the regime does not fundamentally have the interests of its people as its primary concern,” Beyrer said.

Cholera outbreaks are likely because of the widespread flooding of wells and mixing of waste water with drinking water, he said.

News of other recent cholera outbreaks has been suppressed, he said. E coli infections, a major cause of diarrhea and death by dehydration, will also pose major problems, he said, and death rates could reach 20 percent.

Burma’s health-care infrastructure has badly eroded, partly because of international sanctions but also because of official neglect, with Burmese per capita public health care spending among the lowest in the world.

“There simply aren’t going to be the clinics, physicians, and care providers out there—particularly in remote rural areas—to treat people with acute injuries,” Beyrer said.

Aid diverted

Aid groups want to monitor aid distribution largely because they want to ensure the country’s military doesn’t dispense it to political supporters, which some Burmese say is already occurring.

One resident of Twante township, in the hard-hit Irrawaddy delta region, on Friday described the aid diversion as blatant.

“The division commander came on May 7 and dropped the things [aid], saying they were for the victims. They were distributed to the camps and schools where the victims were,” the resident said in an interview.

“On the boxes, it was written ‘General Myint Shwe’—it’s stamped on the boxes. There are snacks and Quaker oatmeal in those boxes. They’ve been stamped ‘General Myint Shwe.’ In those schools they videotaped and took pictures. Soon after the division commander had left, the township chief and the township SPDC [junta] chairman took everything away from the victims. These things never reached the victims.”

According to a 2007 report in the British medical journal The Lancet, nearly 90 percent of Burma's 52 million people are at risk of malaria, while the country has one of the highest rates of tuberculosis in the world with nearly 97,000 cases detected every year. 

Some 25,000 new infections of HIV are recorded every year, while one-third of children are chronically malnourished. But the junta spends less than U.S. $1 on per person on health care every year, or 3 percent of the national budget.

Original reporting by RFA’s Burmese service and Richard Finney. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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