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Burma faces HIV and TB crisis after global funding cuts

Up to 85,000 HIV sufferers in Burma will go without life-saving treatment as donor governments slash support for global health programmes in the wake of the economic crisis.

Of an estimated 9,300 people newly infected with multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) each year in Burma, so far just over 300 have been receiving treatment, according to a new report by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

In November, the Global Fund for Health, Tuberculosis and Malaria was forced to cancel its next round of funding after donors backtracked on a total of $2.2 billion in outstanding pledges. As a result there will be no opportunity to expand treatment for HIV/AIDS and TB until 2014.

This move has hit Burma particularly hard as it is the least developed country in South-East Asia and still receives severely restricted humanitarian aid. The money was expected to provide HIV drugs for 46,500 people and help treat another 10,000 sickened by drug-resistant tuberculosis.

“Yet again, donors have turned their backs on people living with HIV and TB in Myanmar [Burma],” said Peter Paul de Groote, Head of Mission, MSF Burma. “Everyday we at MSF are confronted with the tragic consequences of these decisions: desperately sick people and unnecessary deaths.”

Between 15,000 and 20,000 people living with HIV die every year in Burma because of lack of access to lifesaving anti-retroviral therapy. TB prevalence is more than three times the global average.

MSF has been forced to scale back many of its services and in some areas must reserve treatment for only its sickest patients. “For me, the worst part of my job is to have to tell people that they should be getting treatment but that we can’t give it to them. It really hurts to do this,” says an MSF worker in Burma.

“MSF cannot yet provide me with ART,” explains 38-year old Maung Myint, who has HIV. “I’m only taking anti-TB treatment. But it is not enough. After two to three days I get diarrhoea again. After eating, everything is gone by diarrhoea. I have no energy.”

Funding for global HIV/AIDS programmes has remained largely stagnant since 2009, leading to harsh condemnation from leading experts.

“The reduction of, or failure to honour, pledged support to the Global Fund by donor governments must be understood for what it is – an abrogation of legally grounded human rights obligations,” concluded a statement by the UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights last month.

While Burma recently signaled that it would increase health care spending in its 2012-2013 budget, MSF insists that it will need significant international support.

“This is a defining moment,” says the report. “Recent political reforms in Myanmar [Burma] have been reciprocated by greater engagement from the international community. Donors have a real opportunity, and responsibility, to build on those foundations and help address the gap between need and access to treatment for HIV and TB sufferers.”