Myanmar: Violence and Threats Block Access to Medical Care in Rakhine State

Scale-Up in Provision of Medical Care Urgently Needed

MSF teams in Rakhine State are unable to provide care to many people in need due to ongoing ethnic tensions and threats against MSF staff.

AMSTERDAM/YANGON, MYANMAR, NOVEMBER 5, 2012—As medical teams from Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) assist people affected by violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, they are unable to provide care to many people in need due to ongoing ethnic tensions and threats against MSF staff.

In addition, thousands of patients benefiting from longer-term primary health care programs are cut off from medical services as many of MSF’s activities have been suspended since June.

"That we are prevented from acting and threatened for wanting to deliver medical aid to those in need is shocking and leaves tens of thousands without the medical care they urgently need," said Joe Belliveau, MSF operations manager.

In the past few days MSF teams, working together with the government and other international and national humanitarian organizations, have assessed the medical needs of thousands of people newly displaced by violence near the city of Sittwe and the surrounding townships. These joint teams provided some food, water, and emergency health assistance, but the displaced people remain extremely vulnerable due to the loss of their homes and other resources.

MSF has run a major medical program in Rakhine state for nearly 20 years. Since 2005, MSF treated more than a million people for malaria and provided primary health care, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS treatment, and maternal health services in the state. Its patients hail from all ethnic and religious groups in Rakhine.

But since the outbreak of violence in June, MSF is operating at a fraction of its capacity due to access limitations largely stemming from threats and intimidation. Tens of thousands of long-term residents, previously receiving medical care, have gone without care for months.

Ongoing animosity, aimed partially at aid organizations like MSF, makes it increasingly difficult for MSF to support the Ministry of Health in running already-overstretched clinics and reaching out to newly displaced communities.

The disruption also extends to MSF’s longer-term activities. The opening of a health center to provide primary health care and AIDS treatment in Sittwe town was postponed last week in the face of protests. Drug supplies to MSF’s malaria treatment centers in the rural townships of Kyauk Taw, Minbya, and Paletwa are also disrupted, and if they are not resumed quickly the number of untreated malaria cases will rise rapidly as the peak of the malaria season approaches.

"MSF could do much more to assist the recently displaced, those already in temporary camps and longer-term residents who have been cut off from medical services for far too long, but antagonism from some groups prevents us from doing so," Belliveau said.

A scale-up in the provision of medical care to all people affected by violence in Rakhine state is urgently needed. MSF therefore calls for unhindered access and for tolerance of the provision of medical care to all those who need it.

MSF has worked in Myanmar's Rakhine State since 1994. Its medical activities focus on primary health care, with a specific emphasis on reproductive health, malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis. In 2011, MSF conducted 487,000 consultations. Of these nearly 75,000 were for malaria and nearly 24,000 were related to maternal health. MSF has also been providing lifesaving ART treatment to over 600 AIDS patients. MSF has around 300 employees in Rakhine, but due to the prevention of MSF's activities, job losses are inevitable.