Myanmar overhauls healthcare as it opens up

SINGAPORE Tue Mar 20, 2012 7:28pm IST

Pharmacists prepare medicine for two HIV-positive patients at Medecins Sans Frontieres-Holland (AZG)'s clinic in Yangon February 21, 2012. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Pharmacists prepare medicine for two HIV-positive patients at Medecins Sans Frontieres-Holland (AZG)'s clinic in Yangon February 21, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

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SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Myanmar is quadrupling its health budget this year and focusing on hiring more doctors, securing supplies and renovating hospitals as it tries to modernise after decades of isolation, Health Minister Pe Thet Khin said on Tuesday.

"The quality of healthcare in Myanmar was compromised because of the lack of government funding due to sanctions and other factors," the minister told Reuters on the sidelines of a global health conference in Singapore.

The resource-rich Southeast Asian country also known as Burma has taken steps to open up since 2011 after 50 years of military rule. But it lacks a financial system, a regulatory regime and basic infrastructure.

In the most recent sign of progress, bankers said the country planned to set the new exchange rate at about 820 kyat per U.S. dollar - a far cry from the official rate of 6.4 now.

Myanmar's 2011 healthcare budget was 9.2 billion kyat and was raised as President Thein Sein promised social reforms in his inaugural speech last year.

Pe Thet Khin, a paediatrician, was appointed by Thein and ratified by parliament to head the Health Ministry.

In the past, he said, Myanmar had enough doctors but not the means of employing them, leading to an exodus. In recent years, the four state-owned medical schools have started to train about 2,000 doctors annually, up from 550 in 2000.

The supply of doctors was no longer a big concern but their quality must get better, he said.

"We have a short-term plan of reducing the intake for a while and we are going to increase the course structure by increasing it to six years from five years now," he said.

Skills development was a priority, with Pe Thet Khin encouraging universities and health institutions in Myanmar to start exchange programmes with other countries.

As a developing nation, AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria were "here to stay", he said. But he said AIDS cases had fallen to about 0.6 percent per 100,000 people from 1.9 percent five years ago.

Myanmar's ability to deal with AIDS and the production of illegal opium and methamphetamines is a concern for neighbouring China, one of the few friends the former junta had.

Pe Thet Khin, asked about the future of healthcare, said Myanmar was looking at alternatives that ranged from the British universal coverage system to the health financing system found in Singapore. It now uses a community cost-sharing system.

"Myanmar is trying to develop its infrastructure for health insurance and the banking system. Once they are in place, only then can we decide," he said.

"The biggest problem is trying to convince people that healthcare is important. There is a saying that health is the most important reward one can have but people are still lacking in health education and knowledge. And because of that, they cannot decide what is good or bad for them."

(Reporting By Mark Tay; Editing by John O'Callaghan and Robert Birsel)

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