The University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Institute for Global Health (IGH) helped to bring together a diverse array of opposing factions from Myanmar as part of an unprecedented unified effort to eliminate the country’s most fatal disease: malaria. A historic summit on Aug. 3 in Washington, D.C., was convened by the IGH, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH).
Founding director of the IGH Christopher Plowe, MD, MPH, professor of medicine, along with Myaing Nyunt, MD, MPH, PhD, assistant professor of medicine and director of the IGH’s efforts in Myanmar, has been studying the disease and its impact on this fragmented country for the past two decades.
The meeting included a range of Myanmar groups: both civilian and military government officials; the main opposition party; and the Shan, Karenni, and Kayin ethnic minorities, agreed to a concerted, long-term plan to eliminate malaria in Myanmar. The disease is a major problem in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. About 300,000 people there suffer from malaria every year, and in some parts of the country, a quarter or more of people are infected. In addition, Myanmar faces the grave specter of drug-resistant malaria, and many fear that the disease may become untreatable in the near future even by the most advanced drugs.
“This is a remarkable achievement, a historic landmark for global health and for Myanmar,” said Plowe, who is also president of ASTMH. “Instead of waiting for political reconciliation before we start eliminating malaria, Myanmar society is coming together to tackle this urgent problem – and in the process, it is building political bridges.”
Nyunt said the agreement typified the kind of progress possible when public health leads the way. She noted that many of the groups are building new trust in each other. “This is science diplomacy at its best,” she said. “Malaria elimination is getting out ahead of politics in Myanmar. Maybe we can help build relationships across political lines that will lead to progress in other areas.”
The agreement comes at a historic time for Myanmar. Over the past five years, the country has seen a gradual opening as the long-term military government has allowed increasing political and social freedoms. The country is due to have national elections in November, which many hope could lead to further social and political changes.
In recent years, Myanmar has seen a rise in drug-resistant malaria, rendering treatments less effective. Experts say these parasites could spread to other nations and on to Africa, endangering millions. Plowe and Nyunt say that if the alliance is as effective as it could be, it has a good chance of eliminating drug-resistant disease.
The alliance is a landmark for the Institute for Global Health, which was created in July. The institute is focusing on vaccine research and development, as well as the prevention and treatment of malaria, a disease that infects about 200 million people a year and kills more than half a million, mostly children in Africa. IGH joins two other institutes at the school, the Institute for Human Virology and the Institute for Genome Sciences.
“Drs. Plowe and Nyunt have been doing important work for years in the battle against malaria, in Myanmar and elsewhere,” said University of Maryland School of Medicine Dean E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, who is also the vice president for medical affairs, University of Maryland, Baltimore and the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers distinguished professor of the School of Medicine. “Their work here underscores their commitment to the cause, and I am sure it will help save many lives, in Myanmar and beyond.”
Conference participants shown include (in the front row from left) Dr. Khine Zar Win, Myanmar Ministry of Health; Dr. Myaing Nyunt, University of Maryland Institute for Global Health; Dr. Nu Nu Tha, Myanmar President's Office; Dr. Thein Thein Htay, Myanmar Ministry of Health; and Eh Kalu Shwe Oo, Karen Department of Health and Welfare. In the second row (from left) are Saw Tamala Khin, Karen Department of Health and Welfare; Dr. Aung Moe Nyo; Dr. Tin Myo Win, Myanmar Parliament; Dr. Nay Lin, Myanmar Parliament; Dr. Kyaw Zin Thant, Myanmar Ministry of Health; and Sai Laeng, Shan State Development Foundation. In the back row (from left) are Dr. Tom Cullison, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences; Dr. Khoon Philip, Karenni Mobile Health Committee; Dr. Christopher Plowe, University of Maryland Institute for Global Health; Brig. Gen. Tin Maung Hlaing, Myanmar Directorate of Defense Medical Services; Dr. Aung Thi, Myanmar Ministry of Health; Dr. Than Win, National League for Democracy; J. Stephen Morrison, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Brig. Gen. Saw Lwin, Myanmar Directorate of Defense Medical Services; and Sahil Angelo, Center for Strategic and International Studies.