On the Border, a Lifeline for Burma Migrants With HIV

By Nyein Nyein 14 August 2014

MAE SOT, Thailand — Ma Yin Nu often thinks of returning to her homeland in Burma, but a lack of medicine there stops her from leaving the Thailand-Burma border, where she currently receives support for HIV.

“I am worried that if we go back, my daughter and I might face a shortage of ART [antiretroviral therapy]. Also, I cannot make up my mind whenever I look at those children,” the 42-year-old says, referring to about a dozen orphans at a shelter who depend on her care, each of whom are also infected with HIV.

The “health care house,” as the shelter is known, is run by a community-based group in Mae Sot, a border town of Thailand. It cares not only for the orphans, but also for vulnerable women with the disease, while also offering vocational skills training.

Ma Yin Nu moved to Thailand 15 years ago. Before that, she lived in a remote village near Kawkareik town in Karen State. It was there where she believes she contracted HIV, from a blood transfusion she received while giving birth to her first daughter at a local hospital in 1996. “It took two days to get her out and I lost too much blood,” she says.

At that time, she had never heard of HIV, and she did not know that breast-feeding could pass along the virus to her child. “I had no idea what the deadly disease was,” she says. “My daughter was always sick since she was about 3 months old.”

It was not until she moved to Thailand that Ma Yin Nu learned about her illness. During her second pregnancy in 2000, doctors explained that she was infected with HIV and would need to take medicine to protect her second daughter, who was born healthy.

Ma Yin Nu initially joined the shelter in Mae Sot as a patient, but seven years ago she assumed more of a leadership position. Today she is in charge of the shelter. She prepares meals, helps others take their medicine on time, and runs a self-help income-generating program. In particular, she offers training in sewing and handicrafts.

Over the past decade, more than 100 Burmese people with HIV have sought care at the shelter, which was founded by the Social Action for Women (SAW) group.

“At first we hesitated to open the shelter because there were challenges,” says Ma Aye Mar, director of SAW, referring to the need to find funding, security and caretakers. “But we went ahead because these women and children needed somewhere to live.”

Last month, the Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)’s reported that the number of new cases of HIV in Burma decreased between 2000 and 2013. But today there are still about 189,000 people living with HIV in the country, and health experts believe many more are likely infected but have not been counted. At the end of 2012, only about 40 percent of those who required ART were receiving it, due to a lack of health funding.

Ma Yin Nu suspects there are many infected people in Burma who remain unaware of the disease, especially because reproductive health is a taboo subject in much of the country. Communities tend to stigmatize people with HIV and incorrectly assume that the disease can spread simply by talking with or touching an infected person.

“My parents in Burma do not know, and I never told them about our health,” Ma Yin Nu says. “It is hard to explain to them what I have been through, because I myself do not understand well.”

But in Mae Sot, she says she is surrounded by a well-informed and supportive community. Many residents in the shelter leave after a temporary stay, as soon as they are well enough to find jobs or remarry. “I am not leaving because I am happy here, and as a social worker I can contribute to the organization and to the children.”

“I could not leave them, even though some of them are now 10 to 17 years old,” she says, adding that she has cared for some of them since they were a few months old.