In Burma only one in five people with HIV are treated

The first formal visit the Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi made on her release from house arrest last month was not to an ambassador's residence or a smart United Nations office, but to a tin-roofed HIV/Aids shelter in one of Rangoon's poorest districts.

Choosing to highlight the plight of one of the most neglected groups in Burmese society was characteristic of Ms Suu Kyi; her eagerness to listen to the voices of the poor and sick stood in sharp contrast to the style of Burma's ruling generals, who prefer to remain aloof in the palaces of their remote, newly-built capital.

Ms Suu Kyi chatted with many of the 80 residents of the shelter, which is funded by her National League for Democracy Party and through her own personal donations. Gaunt faces gazed up at her she clasped hands and listened, her warmth evocative of Princess Diana's visit to an HIV/Aids centre in London two decades ago.

In the Rangoon shelter, residents receive food, reed mats to sleep on, HIV/Aids education and help in accessing treatment. It is a rare haven in a country where attitudes towards HIV are firmly rooted in the past. People infected with HIV are often considered deviant, and most don't come forward for testing. For a long time, government officials claimed that Burma's sexual conservatism and strong moral code of abstinence before marriage and fidelity after could protect the country from the epidemic. Instead, it has one of the worst HIV/Aids problems in Asia.

The visit of 65-year-old Ms Suu Kyi just days after her 13 November release threw the spotlight on an issue that Burma's military leaders have for a long time tried to keep hidden. It was attention the junta did not enjoy.

The next day, local government officials came to the refuge to order the eviction of the residents, saying they would no longer approve requests for overnight guests that are legally required for anyone in Burma if they wish to stay the night away from their home. A week later, after a mass of negative publicity, the order was reversed.

"I am greatly relieved and so are the patients," said Ko Yarzar, the shelter's manager. He said health authorities had offered to relocate the patients to a state-run HIV centre but the patients refused to move, saying their shelter not only offers medical care, food and accommodation but "warmth and affection that no other centre can provide".

Phyu Phyu Thin, a well-known HIV/Aids activist and NLD supporter who founded the shelter in 2002, told The Irrawaddy magazine that the authorities apologised when extending the permit. "In my opinion, the authorities retreated because media inside and outside of Burma, as well as other organisations, focused on the issue," she said.

An estimated 240,000 people in Burma are infected with HIV virus, a figure that comes nowhere close to the numbers infected in parts of Africa. But it is the yawning gap between those who need treatment and those who receive it that marks the country's HIV tragedy. Just a fifth of those in need of anti-retroviral treatment actually get it. The remainder are dying, or waiting to die.

The priorities of the regime lie elsewhere. The government spends nearly half of its budget on defence, but just 0.3 per cent of GDP on healthcare. Of that, only a tiny amount goes towards HIV/Aids.

A key donor in the health sector, the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, pulled out of the country in 2005 citing political interference, but earlier last year approved a new grant of around £100m to fund HIV/Aids treatment in Burma over five years.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea