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Diseases From Burma Spreading Throughout Southeast Asia

Health experts are warning that infectious diseases in Burma are growing beyond the government's ability to control them, and are spreading beyond the country's borders. Ron Corben reports for VOA from Bangkok, where an international conference on the matter has just concluded.

Health experts meeting in Bangkok this week warned that Burma needs increased funding and resources to cope with rising rates of infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, AIDS and drug-resistant malaria.

The experts also expressed concern about Burma's ability to meet any new health threats, such as an outbreak of avian flu.

The United Nations AIDS program has estimated that up to 600,000 people in Burma, or more than two percent of Burma's population, are infected with the AIDS virus.

Tom Lee, of the Global Health Access Program at the University of California in Los Angeles, says infectious diseases from Burma are spreading across the border into India.

Lee says HIV/AIDS rates on the Indian side of the Burmese-Indian border are as high as eight percent. He says there is also evidence in India of drug-resistant malaria from the Burmese side.

"From the border areas on the India side, it is very clear that the rates of infectious disease are extremely high, and that this is causing a problem for the Indian states there," he said.

The conference was co-sponsored by two major U.S. universities and Thailand's Mahidol University. It brought together health providers, academics and humanitarian workers from Thailand, the United States, Bangladesh and India, along with Burmese exiles and health workers from China's Yunnan Province.

Burma has been a major source of illegal narcotics into China. Heroin crosses the border into Yunnan, and the AIDS virus, spread by heroin addicts, has followed in its wake.

Andrew Moss an epidemiologist from the University of California at Berkeley, says Chinese officials, too, are starting to take note of the health threat from Burma.

"The Chinese realize they have serious public health issues on the border," said Moss. "They have realized this for a long time with HIV. The Chinese are now clear it's a pretty vulnerable border, from the infectious disease point of view."

Chris Beyrer, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, says there are fears about Burma's capacity to deal with a possible human bird flu epidemic.

"If we end up having real human-to-human transmission… the country's health infrastructure would not currently respond," he said.

Scientists fear that, if the bird flu virus mutates into a form that can easily pass from human to human, a world-wide pandemic could follow.