This weekend, President Obama made a historic visit to Myanmar, becoming the first US President to visit the country. In his address, the President celebrated the country’s shift towards democracy, and the efforts of its inspirational leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. He noted, “Here, through so many difficult years, is where she displayed such unbreakable courage and determination. It’s here where she showed that human freedom and dignity cannot be denied.”
President Obama’s visit also gives us an opportunity to celebrate the commitment and achievements of Myanmar in combating neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). NTDs also threaten human freedom and dignity by causing disabilities, disfigurement and stigmatization. These devastating diseases limit people’s abilities to take care of their families, contribute to their communities and build their country.
Almost 80 percent of Myanmar’s 48 million people are at risk of infection from at least one NTD. The good news is that Myanmar’s Ministry of Health has taken major steps in the right direction to control and eliminate these diseases. The Ministry launched a national NTD program in 2001 and now reaches more than 40 percent of the population at risk for lymphatic filariasis and more than 80 percent of children at risk for intestinal worms, two of the most common NTDs in the world. Myanmar has achieved these successes with scarce resources and a committed cadre of medical and public health experts, health workers and community volunteers.
However, without additional resources to systematically implement and sustain the program, Myanmar will not be able to achieve full control and elimination, and these diseases will continue to persist and threaten the gains made thus far. This means that without additional help from donors, approximately 5 out of 6 people in Myanmar face a real possibility of suffering from intestinal worms, which rob a person of nutrients and energy, resulting in severe anemia, as well as lymphatic filariasis, which causes painful, debilitating swelling of the limbs.
As Myanmar builds its democracy and works to strengthen its economy, the United States and other global leaders can help ensure that Myanmar’s national NTD program remains a priority, continues to receive the necessary support and commitment and achieves control and elimination.
As President Obama strengthens the United States’ relationship with member countries of ASEAN by participating in the East Asia Summit this week, these leaders have an opportunity to call attention to the impact of NTDs on economic growth and development. Together, the ASEAN member countries account for 16 percent of the world’s population at risk for lymphatic filariasis and 42 percent of children requiring deworming. By working together, these global leaders can end the neglect and ensure that all individuals, families and communities can actively participate in and contribute to the trade, investment and other economic opportunities arising in this region.
By: Anupama Tantri and Amber Cashwell