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HelpAge International workshop shares outcomes of project to strengthen Myanmar’s health system

On Friday 16 August 2019, HelpAge International hosted a workshop in Yangon to demonstrate how it has helped to strengthen Myanmar’s public health system to better prevent, diagnose and manage non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the country.

Myanmar is undergoing a health transition from infectious diseases to more chronic NCDs, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. NCDs are more common in older people, and therefore prevalence of NCDs in Myanmar grows with the population’s increased life expectancy. In 2000, NCDs were estimated to account for 47 per cent of all deaths in Myanmar, whereas in 2017 the figure had risen to 68 per cent, according to data from the World Health Organization. Yet, access to effective diagnosis and treatment is limited, while the population is unaware of the conditions and how they are putting themselves at risk.

To help overcome these challenges, HelpAge, in collaboration with University of Public Health, Yangon, University of Medicine 2, Yangon, and Thammasat University, Thailand, has since 2015 implemented a five-year project called “Strengthening Public Health Capacity to Respond to Myanmar’s Disease Transition”. This has been funded by the European Union (EU), World Diabetes Foundation and Age International.

Today’s workshop was held at the Sule Shangri-La Hotel, Yangon to showcase the achievements and the lessons learned from the project, and to discuss further development of the project through feedback.

The event was attended by senior figures from the Government, EU and UN representatives, health staff involved in the project, and academics from partner universities. 

Through the project, HelpAge has enabled the University of Public Health and wider health stakeholders to develop evidence-based policies and improve health services for NCDs at the primary healthcare level in all 330 townships in Myanmar, with a focus on training and research. 

The project has assisted the Ministry of Health and Sports to improve collaboration within itself and other ministries, and to help integrate NCDs into the mainstream of national health policy dialogue and service delivery together with academic institutions. The key achievement in this area has been the development of the National Strategic Plan on Prevention and Control of NCDs (2017-2021).

A significant milestone for the project has been completing the training of over 800 health staff across the whole of Myanmar on the Package of Essential NCD Interventions (PEN). The package includes inexpensive methods for detecting and diagnosing NCDs early, approaches to reduce NCD risk factors, such as obesity and alcohol and tobacco use, and affordable medicines to treat the conditions. The trained staff pass on their knowledge to other health workers in their communities to ensure their acquired skills and knowledge trickle down.

Health staff and representatives from University of Public Health, University of Medicine 2 and University of Community Health Magway shared their experiences receiving the training. 

Daw Mar Lar Soe, a midwife from Yae Oakkan rural health centre in Hlaing Tharyar township, Yangon, said: “Before I received the training, I was a little worried about my ability to treat NCDs. Basic health staff are unfamiliar with them, although we learned about them at university. But now, we open the PEN clinic every Wednesday at our rural health centre and provide healthcare services to people affected by a range of NCDs, including diabetes and hypertension.”

Among 45 activities, the project:
• developed a national strategic NCDs plan
• drafted a national mental health policy
• developed training manuals, policy briefs and other communications materials to raise community awareness, build health workforce capacity and to support advocacy work on NCDs
• implemented pilot NCD screening initiatives through older people-led community groups referred to as inclusive self-help groups.

Alongside the presentations, the event had booths showcasing activities from the project and the inclusive self-help groups. 

H.E. Kristian Schmidt, EU Ambassador to Myanmar said: “By taking action now and guaranteeing accessible and affordable healthcare for all, we can ensure people of all ages live healthier and more productive lives and lessen the pressure NCDs place on Myanmar’s public health systems. Better health means a stronger society and improved economy for Myanmar.”

Godfred Paul, HelpAge International’s Country Director in Myanmar, said: “Today in Myanmar, more than two-thirds of people die due to non-communicable diseases. Yet there is a significant gap in healthcare services to prevent and treat them. Working together with the Ministry of Health and Sports and partner universities, we at HelpAge International are using our expertise and experience to help to close this gap and improve the health of all Myanmar’s citizens.”