By MIN KHET MAUNG
RANGOON — The news that she had tuberculosis couldn’t have come at a worse time for 28-year-old Thida [not her real name].
She is the sole breadwinner of her family—supporting her aged mother, a disabled brother, two nieces and a nephew, in their simple village home in Burma’s Pegu Division.
Thida is a victim of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR), which drains her strength and her already limited financial resources. Her monthly drugs bill alone is the equivalent of US $20.
Thida’s father and brother died of TB. She had cared for them and believes she caught the disease from one of the two sick men. Now she looks after her brother’s three children and tries to pay their school fees from the $35 she earns monthly in a Rangoon garment factory.
Thida daren’t take sick leave because her meager earnings would be cut. When she was once too sick to work and stayed away for 10 days her month’s pay was cut by one third. Ostracism by fellow workers afraid of catching TB adds to her ordeal.
Thida discovered she had TB early last year, after trying unsuccessfully to cure a persistent cough with medicine she bought from a betel shop near the hostel where she lives.
For six months the drugs prescribed for her were free of charge. But at the end of six months she had to pay for her medicine—“Nobody told me why.”
"Sometimes, some of drugs the doctor prescribed are not easily available in the pharmacy and then I have to spend many hours looking for them in Rangoon," she said.
After several months, she was referred to the 300-bed Aung San TB Hospital, outside
Rangoon, where nearly 100 TB patients are being treated. Doctors told Thida she had multidrug-resistant TB and needed in-patient treatment.
Relatives of TB patients currently being treated at the hospital say multidrug-resistant TB patients have to pay the equivalent of $250-$300 monthly, although those with ordinary TB are not charged for their drugs.
The prospect of having to find that kind of money makes Thida despair. The times when she was able to send her family up to 20,000 kyat ($19) a month are anyway over. Her dilemma is nightmarish—she can scarcely afford to keep herself alive, but she must survive for the sake of her family. But she’s certainly not suffering alone—Burma has 130,000 people with TB.