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Alumnus taking the lead in combatting tuberculosis in Myanmar

Posted: 7 February 2024

Alumni, Health, Social inclusion,

Tuberculosis (TB) is one of the major health challenges related to morbidity and mortality in Myanmar. The World Health Organization (WHO) describes Myanmar as one of the countries with a high burden of TB, TB-HIV and drug-resistant TB. According to the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union), there are 365,000 new TB cases in Myanmar each year, and the WHO’s Global Tuberculosis Report 2021 estimated that 22,000 deaths occurred in the country due to TB in 2021.

As the Strategic Development Director of The Union, Australia Awards alumnus Dr Soe Htet was at the forefront of health activities addressing TB. He focused on preventing and treating TB and lung disease in Myanmar by maintaining and improving access to TB and HIV services and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. He now works as Senior Program Director at Population Services International, where he continues to focus on TB and other diseases relevant to family health such as HIV and malaria.

Dr Soe Htet completed a PhD on Public Health from Monash University in 2015 with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. He credits his Scholarship with helping amplify his contribution to his country.

“This helped me develop a more critical and evidence-based approach to my work, which has had a positive impact on public health outcomes in Myanmar,” he says.

Describing his work, Dr Soe Htet says, “Since 2020, I worked in collaboration with the health partners to ensure that TB and HIV services were maintained while also responding to COVID-19, with a focus on implementing infection prevention and control measures and advocating for the inclusion of TB and HIV in national COVID-19 response plans.”

There are many challenges in the battle against TB in Myanmar. Dr Soe Htet says that one of the key obstacles to implementing health service activities is the limited amount of resources available. As a result, the general public have little awareness of TB information and very limited access to health services. He also highlights the discrimination against people with TB, HIV and COVID-19 due to social stigma. People with these diseases may become socially isolated in the community. Consequently, people with TB symptoms are resistant to getting a diagnosis and treatment.

“It is difficult to engage people who are living with such diseases—and their communities—to implement prevention, diagnosis and treatment activities,” Dr Soe Htet says.

To address and overcome those barriers, Dr Soe Htet and his organisation developed several strategies. Most importantly, they engaged with communities and civil society organisations to increase awareness of TB, HIV and COVID-19, and to reduce stigma and discrimination.

Additionally, Dr Soe Htet and his team improved access to healthcare services by using innovative approaches to reach people in remote or hard-to-access areas through mobile clinics, telemedicine, and community-based testing and treatment programs.

They also provided training and support to healthcare workers in Myanmar, increasing their capacity to improve diagnosis, treatment and prevention of TB, HIV and COVID-19.

“We emphasise the importance of collaboration, partnership and community involvement in the fight against infectious diseases,” Dr Soe Htet says. “The community-based innovative approaches aimed to empower communities to take control of their own health, to increase access to care and support, and to help to reduce the burden of TB, HIV and COVID-19.”

Dr Soe Htet shares the success of these efforts with pride. “We have improved access to TB and HIV services in Myanmar, particularly those living in remote or hard-to-reach areas,” he says. “More people have been able to receive timely diagnosis and treatment for these diseases, leading to improved health outcomes.”