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Health Efforts a Keystone in Rebuilding Burma

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It will be a triumphant moment for human rights when pro-democracy politician and Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi receives the Congressional Gold Medal on Sept. 19. The award comes as part of her first visit to the U.S. after spending many of the past 20 years as a political prisoner under house arrest in Burma.

I hope the ceremony will also present an opportunity to focus on solutions to the many hardships the Burmese people still face. Among the most dire are inadequate health systems, which have been a longstanding consequence of the political strife the country has suffered for generations.

They have also been an obstacle to the progress on democracy and human rights that Suu Kyi has pursued over the past three decades. In a video address at the International AIDS Conference this July, Suu Kyi highlighted the need to tackle HIV/AIDS in Burma and insisted that by strengthening the community's response to HIV/AIDS, "we strengthen our chances of achieving democracy and of building up strong democratic institutions."

According to the World Health Organization, the ruling military leaders' investment in health is only 2 percent of GDP, among the smallest health budgets in the world. An estimated 240,000 people in the country are living with HIV/AIDS, and there remains a high risk of malaria, with incidence of drug-resistant malaria spreading.

As U.S. policy makers applaud the work of Suu Kyi and consider how best to address Burma's needs moving forward, it is important to remember that improved health is critical to the development of democracy.

I spoke recently with Dr. Chris Beyrer, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights and Associate Director of the school's Center for Global Health, and he agreed that health efforts will be a keystone in the rebuilding of Burma.

"Access to health care is absolutely critical to the democratization of Burma," Dr. Beyrer said. "Nothing can be built without attending to this very basic need of the Burmese people. Through a sustained commitment to health care and infrastructure -- by not only outside actors, but also the government of Burma itself -- we can begin to see a healthier, stronger and more just Burma."

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is already working in Burma to achieve these goals. The world's largest health financier, the U.S.-supported Global Fund, has recently approved more than $116 million in health funding for Burma -- which is designed to strengthen Burma's health system through infrastructure renovation and health training, in addition to providing treatment and care.

Through Global Fund-financed programs in the country, 39,000 people receive anti-retroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS; 130,090 tuberculosis cases have been detected and treated; and 650,000 insecticide-treated nets have been distributed to help prevent malaria. Last month, Suu Kyi met with Gabriel Jaramillo, the General Manager of the Global Fund. Jaramillo was visiting Burma in an effort to learn more about funding gaps and to further strengthen the work of the Global Fund, which strives to promote civic engagement, as well as encourage and strengthen local and government investments in health.

Of course, the most immediate results can be seen among the tens of thousands of Burmese people who are now healthier and thus able to create stronger communities and lead more productive lives. For example, the Global Fund grants being implemented by Save the Children and its partner Médecins Sans Frontières are providing health care in some of the most remote and troubled parts of the country.

The U.S. has provided critical and ongoing bipartisan support for the work of the Global Fund and global health efforts more generally. Both sides of the aisle have also been home to stalwart proponents of human rights and democracy in Burma, as we'll see during the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony this week. This commitment by Congress and the administration -- to a healthier and safer world for everyone -- should make Americans incredibly proud. It's at the core of who we are.

There is still a lot of work to be done in Burma. But with a healthy foundation, and with continued strong support from the U.S., it can move toward building a stronger and more just society.