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Burma AIDS Campaign Focuses on Migrants - 2002-06-05

Using international donations, Burma (Myanmar) hopes to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS by focusing on vulnerable migrant groups. While Burma is denied most international aid, the United Nations and other organizations are leading efforts to head off a threatening AIDS epidemic.

The international community withholds most aid from Burma because of its human rights failings. A special United Nations program, however, is an exception, as agencies rush to help Burma fight the spread of AIDS. Burma, with a large mobile population, is highly vulnerable to the spread of AIDS and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, says Lee-Nah Hsu, who heads the U.N. program. "One needs to be able to go into and assist in tackling the HIV situation in any country because we also know as we have demonstrated very clearly with the data AIDS does not respect national boundaries," she said.

Burma's Health Ministry and UNAIDS estimate there are 200,000 people in Burma living with HIV/AIDS. Seventy-five percent contract the virus through heterosexual sex. As many as 35 percent of sex workers are infected. The U.N. estimates that two percent of pregnant women in the country are infected. Large numbers of Burmese workers move about the country and throughout the region in search of work. Many Burmese men work as seafarers, stopping at foreign ports. For this reason says Ms. Hsu, the international community can not ignore Burma in fighting AIDS.

"We can not leave Myanmar isolated because of the movement of people in and out," she said. "It influences the entire epidemic in the region as well as beyond."

The UN Children's Fund UNICEF plans to spend $2.5 million on HIV/AIDS prevention programs. UNICEF will focus attention on preventing mother-to-child transmission covering 12 townships. Australian-based CARE International aims an education program at seafarers, migrant workers and even traditional theatrical workers. Medecins Sans Frontieres is working with ethnic minorities such as the Kachin and Shan, while Britian's Save the Children Fund has developed youth education, care and support programs. Such broad ranging assistance is essential, notes Ms. Hsu, adding that "medical responses alone are totally insufficient in dealing with the HIV issue. We must look more holistically at the social-economic side, in addition to medical technology that has improved."

The United Nations hopes to help Burma's health ministry fill funding gaps in combating the disease in one of the world's poorest nations.