Only recently have authorities in Myanmar admitted to an HIV/AIDS problem in the country
New government has agreed five year plan to reduce stigma and spread of the disease
Treatment of the disease was forced underground under brutal military junta
Activists say there is shame attached to buying condoms, so most people don't bother
Ma Soe Soe Kyi’s skeletal frame is visible above her blanket; she is too weak to keep her eyes open. Her husband waves away the flies and looks on helplessly.
Kyi is HIV positive and finally getting help and medication from a private HIV clinic in Yangon, Myanmar. There are 60 patients here – the oldest is 70 years old, the youngest just three months.
Ko Yar Zar is one of the founders of the clinic and tells CNN they used to have to move the operation from house to house and stay secret for fear of being shut down by the brutal military junta.
“Without this clinic, these people would die,” he says.
The clinic was started by pro-democracy leader Aung San Syi Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy. It relies heavily on donations from private enterprises, individuals and AZG, the Dutch arm of Doctors without borders.
Ma Aye Mi San is HIV positive and five months pregnant. Infected by her husband, her parents forced them apart when they found out. She has since reconciled with him, saying he is suffering too.
“After I heard I have HIV, I wanted to die,” she says. “I felt it was hopeless, I never knew anyone could help me.”
HIV is little understood in this country, many of the patients here have nowhere else to go after being ostracized by their families.
Countless others, according to Zar, never admit to carrying the disease for that reason, making an accurate assessment of the scale of the problem in Myanmar very difficult.
The clinic holds seminars to try and educate the public about HIV. Zar says there is shame attached to buying condoms, so most people don’t bother.
Only recently have authorities in Myanmar admitted to an HIV/AIDS problem in the country. At a seminar jointly held with UNAIDS, the joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, officials from the newly installed civilian government agreed on a five year plan to reduce stigma and spread of the disease.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 240,000 people were HIV positive in Myanmar in 2009 – from an estimated 3.5 million across South East Asia.
Dealing with HIV in Myanmar is exacerbated by a weak health system chronically under-funded for decades. Spending on health in this country is among the lowest in the world – just $23 spent per capita, according to the World Health Organization.
That compares to $345 per capita in neighboring Thailand.
Local residents say decent healthcare is reserved for the rich and the civilian hospitals lack basic facilities and equipment. The health situation is even more dire in rural areas and the tense border areas – which has suffered from years of conflict between government forces and Karen insurgents.