HIV, AIDS in Myanmar key focus for Aung San Suu Kyi, though there's still 'a long way to go'
By Katie Silver
Aside from meeting with politicians and supporters, one of Aung San Suu Kyi's major roles in Australia is to speak today at Melbourne's celebration of World AIDS Day.
The democracy activist's commitment to HIV/AIDS is not new.
"She's long been committed to this issue," Eamonn Murphy, country coordinator of UNAIDS Myanmar, said.
After she came out of house arrest, one of the first places she went to was a hospice for people receiving HIV treatment, Mr Murphy says.
In 2012, Ms Suu Kyi was named as UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador.
"She had a resonance around the issue of exclusion and people having a right to be a part of their own society," he said.
In Myanmar, 200,000 people live with HIV/AIDS. Most live on the fringe as drug users, sex workers or gay men.
"Regionally, it's in the top group of countries both in prevalence and the impact it has on people's lives," Mr Murphy said.
While the numbers have shown a downward trend, Mr Murphy puts this largely down to "people dying because they don't access care."
"Discrimination is the hardest barrier we have in HIV as it stops people accessing treatment," he said.
If you are found to have HIV in Myanmar you are likely to lose your job, he says.
Stigma, discrimination, fear of the unknown and notions around bad luck all help the disease spread in Asia.
And the country's chequered political history has not helped.
"The health situation in Myanmar is dire after 50 years of military rule," Mr Murphy said.
He says for decades there was little domestic support to combat HIV/AIDS and a refusal to accept global support.
This put Myanmar way behind its neighbours, such as Cambodia and Thailand, when it came to providing the best antiretroviral treatments.
"The country has to be rebuilt - there's lots of catch-up to do."
Budget increase but there's still 'a long way to go'
In the past couple of years, the Myanmar government has quadrupled the health budget.
"With increased financial resources it should be possible to meet targets," Medecins Sans Frontieres head of mission in Myanmar Peter Paul de Groote said.
Mr De Groote says Myanmar needs decentralised hospitals and expertise on HIV care to spread outside of the main centres.
"Many more treatment sites will have to be opened" and treatment for stable patients needs to be simplified, he says.
National NGO Network chairperson Nwe Zin Win says there have been improvements with more people accessing antiretroviral treatments and an increased presence of grass roots organisations.
Still, she says Myanmar faces three diseases: HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.
Mr Murphy says work needs to be done to reduce stigma.
"There's a long way to go but, in conjunction with Aung San Suu Kyi, we're working on it," he said.
UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe will speak alongside Aung San Suu Kyi in Melbourne.
"She will inspire the people of Australia to speak out against HIV stigma and discrimination on World AIDS Day," he said.