By WAI MOE
The outbreak of diarrhea cases in poor neighborhoods of Rangoon has highlighted the woeful lack of health care standards, and the military government’s neglect of basic funding to the public health care system.
In terms of the annual budget, each Burmese citizen is allocated about US 70 cents for his or her health care by the military government, according to date gathered by international agencies.
In the wave of illnesses, now entering their third week, five residents in low-income Rangoon townships have died and at least 100 people have suffered diarrhea attacks, largely contracted from unsanitary drinking water or contaminated food. The worst hit areas are North Okkalapa, North and South Dagon Myothit and Thaketa townships.
Two high-ranking officials of the military regime visited the areas this week, state-run-newspapers reported. Brig-Gen Win Myint, the commander of the army’s Rangoon regional command, visited North Okkalapa Township on April 26 and No.2 Ward, one of the worst hit areas, on April 23. The visits followed media reports on the illnesses in the Burmese foreign media.
The deaths and the wave of illnesses have gone unreported in Burmese state-run and private media.
The newspaper report said Win Myint told local residents to use more sanitary waste facilities and to avoid unsafe drinking water.
On Monday, Brig-Gen Aung Thein Linn, the mayor of Rangoon, also visited North Okkalapa. He reportedly said that 40 emergency, fly-safe toilet facilities would be made available to the community in No 2 Ward.
Officials said further improvements in waste disposal would have to be made by local residents who must “stand on their own feet,” according to residents.
Many poor households in North Okkalapa along Nga Moe Yeik Creek, and other areas, commonly lack a sanitary toilet system and human waste contaminates the creek and many underground water sources, according to residents.
Private physicians said diarrhea problems around Rangoon result from substandard drinking water and the lack of sanitary waste disposal, plus contamination of food stuff by flies.
Tap water in Rangoon is usually not fit to drink and very limited. Most residents rely on water wells or ground water.
While there are many factories that manufacture drinking water in Rangoon and other cities in Burma, the price for a 1-liter bottle is 400 kyat ($ 40 cents); a 20-liter bottle ranges from 2,000– 4,000 kyat, prices beyond the means of poor residents who must use their money for food.
According to international agencies, Burma’s gross national income per capita was $220 in 2007, or about 65 cents a day.
“We cannot afford to buy drinking water, so we boil water from the well to escape the diseases in water,” explained a housewife in North Dagon Myothit.
Many residents in North Okkalapa, Dagon Myothit and Thaketha and other areas of Rangoon commonly use only a bamboo covered hole in the ground for waste disposal.
“They cannot afford a concrete toilet structure that is better for their health,” said a Rangoon businessman, who operates a waste facility construction company.
The price for a concrete toilet facility, which limits ground water contamination, is around 100,000 kyat ($100), about one half of a low-income person’s annual wage.
International health agencies have provided plastic toilet facilities for several decades, but health experts said their efforts have not solved the problem of ground water contamination.
Experts said a major factor contributing to the problem is the government’s paltry funding of the health care sector.
According to data from international agencies, 3 percent of the military government’s annual expenditure is allocated to health care, while education receives 10 percent.
Military expenditures account for about 50 percent of the annual budget.
Residents said authorities also ordered roadside food stalls in affected areas to close.
“Now people in our ward are suffering from even greater economic problems because of the order to close the food stalls,” said a resident in North Okkalapa.