UN aid workers say the health situation in Burma’s northern Arakan (Rakhine) State is becoming “desperate.”
“Even before the recent unrest, there was limited access to healthcare for many in Rakhine State,” said Victoria Hawkins, the deputy head of mission of the medical charity, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF-Holland), which has worked in the region for 18 years.
“Now the situation is becoming desperate,” she said, according to an article on the IRIN website, a service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
A 2012 report by the Arakan Project, an advocacy group that works with Rohingya, an ethnic, religious and linguistic minority numbering about 800,000 in Rakhine, noted that the health indicators were appalling, said IRIN.
In the administrative district of Maungdaw Township, just 30 per cent of the population has access to public health services and there are only three medical doctors for a population of 430,000, while Buthidaung Township has two doctors per 280,000 people, it said. Almost half the population in the area has no access to clean water.
A state of emergency was declared in six areas of the state following widespread sectarian violence that began on April 28, but has since tapered off.
“The biggest challenge we face at present is access. The tension and insecurity [in Rakhine] means we are unable to reach many people in need of urgent healthcare," said MSF’s Hawkins. “It is critical that all efforts are made to ensure that medical organizations are able to resume their activities to reach all those in need.”
According to the latest information from OCHA, mobile medical teams from the military, the ministry of health, the Myanmar Medical Association and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) are providing basic healthcare services to the displaced.
Government estimates put the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) at some 52,000, living in more than 60 locations, but international agencies estimate the actual number of people affected at 100,000, IRIN said.
Most of the displaced are Rohingya, who have long faced persecution in Burma, where they are stateless and viewed as illegal Bengali immigrants.
The prevalent causes of mortality in the area listed in a 2010 report by the UN Human Rights Council included malaria, diarrhea, respiratory and skin infections, intestinal parasites and cholera, while the maternal mortality rate of 380 per 100,000 live births in the state was significantly higher than the 240 recorded in the rest of the country.
Of particular concern are people living with HIV and TB, said IRIN.
“Disruption of access to the drugs could result in drug-resistant cases,” said Thiha Kyaing, the head of the Phoenix Association, a local NGO assisting HIV patients in collaboration with MSF. Disruption in their medication could endanger their lives and the general level of health in the area, he said.
MSF, the largest provider of life-prolonging antiretroviral (ARV) treatment in Burma, said many people in need were not able to access the drugs they reqired.
"The limited contact we have been able to have with our HIV patients has confirmed to us how concerned they are about disruption to their treatment," said Hawkins.
According to the Myanmar Positive Group (MPG), an HIV support network, 669 patients (320 in Sittwe and 349 in the Buthidaung and Maungdaw areas) are on a list of people needing ARV drugs from the clinics run by MSF.
The clinics were forced to shut down due to security concerns, disrupting the drug delivery system. The Phoenix Association in Sittwe and MPG have been trying to establish contact with the people on the list.
“[We have been] unable to contact 30 patients,” said Min San Tun, a programme officer at MPG. “We are very worried about the health of these people.”