Myanmar: mother and child survival challenges

A young boy diagnosed with pneumonia has a daily check-up from a village health worker in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region. (photo: Lynette Lim/Save the Children)

Myanmar has made considerable progress in its social development over the past couple of years. The country’s social indicators generally seem to be moving in the right direction.

And while the influx of imported second-hand cars and the changing Yangon skyline don’t necessarily represent development, they do reflect the country’s improving engagement with the rest of the world – certainly in the three years since I was last here.

Significant disparities and challenges remain though. Around 50,000 children die each year before reaching their fifth birthday, and thousands of mothers die during pregnancy and childbirth because they don’t have access to basic health care.

Myanmar is one of the worst places to be a mother and young child according to recent reports. The annual government spending on health is just US$0.38 per person, while ethnic minorities and remote communities have no access to the national health services.

Myanmar lags far behind its neighbours in making progress on human development and towards achieving the millennium development goals next year.

With the global spotlight on Myanmar this week owing to the ASEAN summit and Obama visit, it’s important to emphasise the need for continued social reform, particularly in the health sector.

Myanmar needs to expedite progress towards achieving universal health coverage, ensuring access for all people and communities across the country.

Devolution of health planning and service delivery to the township level is the way forward for health sector reform in Myanmar, and will ensure equity in coverage of primary health services for all communities, irrespective of their ethnic origin and socioeconomic status.

I’m in Yangon this week to support our programme in Myanmar. It’s heartening to learn that Save the Children and Merlin together constitute the largest international health agency in the country. We’re helping provide basic health services in one-third of all townships in the country.

We work in close collaboration with local governments and partners such as the Myanmar Nurses and Midwives Association. Last year, we trained more than 900 health workers and volunteers, and treated more than 100,000 mothers and children across the country.

With support from our partners such as GSK, we’re working to strengthen local health systems and support community capacity to deliver quality health services for mothers and children.

Myanmar seems to be heading in the right direction towards improving health outcomes for all its people. But that progress needs to be expedited and sustained, with support and continued engagement from international partners.