Mon 5 Dec 2011
Filed under: Health
USAID is set to expand a US$24 million anti-malaria project into Myanmar, health officials said last week.The project, which aims to halt the spread of drug-resistant malaria, will draw on prevention, treatment and containment models developed in Cambodia.
The project will be implemented by University Research Corp, which oversees USAID-funded projects in about 40 countries and is a partner in the malaria containment effort in Cambodia, they said.
“This is our first USAID-funded project in Myanmar,” Dr Kheang Soy Ty, chief of URC’s malaria containment project in Cambodia, told the Phnom Penh Post on November 30. The project will span five years and cover three countries – Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand – he added.
The project also underscores the emergence of closer relations between Washington and Nay Pyi Taw. In September, the embassy in Yangon unveiled a five-year USAID program called Shae Thot (The Way Forward) to deliver humanitarian assistance to communities in central Myanmar through the international NGO Pact.
Previously, USAID funding to Myanmar had been directed primarily to pro-democracy groups, humanitarian assistance to Myanmar nationals in Thailand and containing “the spread of infectious diseases” along the country’s border with Thailand. USAID has also funded HIV prevention and treatment in Myanmar.
Health officials say the new funding for malaria signals greater willingness by the US to engage Myanmar.
URC’s malaria project was approved in the second week of October and some of its funding comes from the President’s Malaria Initiative, Kheang Soy Ty said. PMI was established in 2005 as a five-year project to increase funding for malaria prevention and treatment in sub-Saharan Africa. It was extended and expanded by President Barack Obama in 2009 as part of his Global Health Initiative. PMI staff visited the region, including Myanmar, in October to conduct a regional assessment, Kheang Soy Ty said.
URC staff will meet in Bangkok in the second week of December to discuss implementation of the project. Major concerns will include reaching populations in areas under the control of armed ethnic groups, where malaria is endemic, Kheang Soy Ty said.
Malaria experts in Cambodia said that URC will draw on strategies developed in Cambodia to access “hidden” populations along Myanmar’s border with Thailand.
Dr Steven Bjorge, team leader of the malaria and vector-borne diseases department of the WHO in Cambodia, said “we definitely hope they can duplicate the success of our project here”. He identified three components of the project for duplication in Myanmar: mass distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets, engaging communities to create community surveillance systems, and gaining access to hard-to-reach and hidden populations.
The goal of URC’s project is to decrease the prevalence of malaria, deaths from malaria and to contain drug-resistant malaria, Kheang Soy Ty said. Funding from USAID would preclude working with the government, but once in Myanmar URC could tap other donors for funds that would allow it to train government officials on malaria prevention, treatment and containment, he said.
Drug-resistant malaria was first detected in 2009 along the Cambodian-Thai border, with Pailin identified as the epicentre of what epidemiologists saw as a potential global health nightmare. They were alarmed that the parasite that causes malaria was becoming resistant to the most effective drug they have for treating it, artemisinin. Testing conducted earlier this year found that in some villages along the border it was taking twice as long for the drug artemisinin to clear the parasite from an infected patient, and that in some clusters, more than one-third of those infected were showing resistance to the drug.
Anecdotal evidence from clinics along the Thai-Myanmar border suggested that drug-resistant malaria was present in the country, but the lack of a national surveillance and detection system has made it impossible to accurately assess the situation there, health officials said.
A failure to contain drug-resistant malaria could result in millions of deaths, the WHO has warned. It estimates that about 3.3 billion people – half the world’s population – are at risk of malaria.