Feature story

Myanmar overcomes major challenges to push forward its response to HIV

26 October 2012

UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé (left) met with Vice-President of Myanmar Dr Sai Mauk Kham on 26 October in Nay Pyi Taw. Credit: UNAIDS

The Vice-President of Myanmar, Dr Sai Mauk Kham, reconfirmed his government’s commitment to effective HIV programming during a meeting with UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé. The two leaders met in Nay Pyi Taw, the country’s capital, where they discussed the progress made by Myanmar in its AIDS response despite the enormous challenges faced by the country.

Vice-President Sai Mauk Kham highlighted that Myanmar is struggling with twin challenges—human resources capacity and funding. “Myanmar’s main obstacle is funding. We need US$ 340 million dollars for our response to HIV. Right now we have reached 50% of our target. We have to continue our efforts,” said Dr Sai Mauk Kham.

Unlike other low- and middle-income countries in Asia, Myanmar has received little international support during the past two decades. However, the country has still managed to make some progress in its national AIDS response. Around 216 000 people were living with HIV in Myanmar in 2011 with an HIV prevalence among the adult population estimated at 0.53%. Health authorities estimated that 8 500 new HIV infections occurred in 2011—a drop from 11 000 in 2008 and an estimated 32% of people living with HIV in need of treatment were accessing it, compared to just 12% in 2008.

Myanmar’s main obstacle is funding. We need US$ 340 million dollars for our response to HIV. Right now we have reached 50% of our target. We have to continue our efforts

Vice-President of Myanmar, Dr Sai Mauk Kham

“This is a transformative moment in Myanmar. Despite difficult times, Myanmar is managing to deliver results,” said Mr Sidibé. “UNAIDS will support Myanmar’s efforts to seize this window of opportunity and expand HIV programmes to make significant returns on investments.”

Since reform and political change have occurred in Myanmar, international donors are investing more in the country’s AIDS response. At the same time, the country is increasing its domestic budget for HIV. This month, the government announced that for the first time ever, Myanmar will dedicate funds to acquire antiretroviral drugs. The Ministry of Health is planning to spend its own resources on HIV treatment which will be distributed through the state health system.

Reforming laws

Mr Sidibé also met with Myanmar’s Attorney General Dr Tun Shin and called on his support to reform existing punitive laws which often date back to colonial times. Existing laws criminalizing same-sex sexual activities between consenting adults, sex work and drug use are hampering the AIDS response in the country.

UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé; and Myanmar’s Attorney General Dr Tun Shin. Credit: UNAIDS

“Our goal is universal access to HIV services but we face universal obstacles,” said Mr Sidibé. “Anything we can do to remove obstacles will be very supportive of the AIDS response. We will not reach zero discrimination without reforming laws,” he added.

Dr Shin explained that amending or drafting laws is a two-step process in Myanmar, with ministries in charge of initiating the legal reform in their area. Once the ministries have drafted the laws they come to his office for vetting and processing. Dr Shin said that it is important for the people of Myanmar and the international community to see that the government is serious about change through the reform of its laws. He assured Mr Sidibé that the Office of the Attorney General would support the efforts of UNAIDS in this area.