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Radio Free Asia

One Million Children Unvaccinated in Myanmar Amid Post-Coup Turmoil

2021-07-09 -- Nearly one million children in Myanmar have been denied routine vaccinations amid the political upheaval of the military's coup d'Ă©tat, healthcare workers said Friday, while the ongoing turmoil has stymied efforts to control a new coronavirus outbreak in the capital Naypyidaw, according to residents.

Myanmar's Ministry of Health recommends administering 12 vaccinations to children from the time of their birth until they are 10 years of age to protect against Hepatitis B, tuberculosis, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, and influenza. An additional vaccine to prevent against a variant of the human papillomavirus that can lead to cervical cancer is recommended for girls.

The ministry under Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) government suspended the country's regular vaccination drive for children on April 1 last year amid a rise in infections of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, but resumed it two months later.

On Feb. 1, the military overthrew Myanmar's democratically elected government, claiming voter fraud had led to a landslide victory for NLD party in the country's November 2020 election. The junta has yet to provide evidence of its claims and has violently suppressed nationwide demonstrations calling for a return to civilian rule, killing nearly 900 people over the past five months.

Another casualty of the coup has been healthcare access for the nation's children, according to medical workers and parents, who spoke to RFA's Myanmar Service on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal.

They said that Myanmar's vaccination drive has stalled again, but this time because healthcare workers are taking part in a nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) against the junta, while many of the country's hospitals have been closed.

Securing vaccinations for children has been particularly difficult in Myanmar's remote border regions, where military offensives against ethnic armies and People's Defense Force (PDF) militias have displaced an estimated 230,000 residents since the coup. They join more than 500,000 refugees from decades of conflict between the military and ethnic armies who were already counted as internally displaced persons (IDPs) at the end of 2020, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a Norwegian NGO.

A mother who fled fighting in Kayah state's Demoso township told RFA she has been unable to vaccinate her 16-month-old daughter while taking refuge at an area IDP camp.

"She received a vaccine when she was 10 months old and was supposed to get another in June ... but I can't give it to her, as we are on the run," she said.

"She used to get vaccinated regularly, but now she is at risk of infections."

Many of the more than 100,000 IDPs from Demoso township are infants or elderly and considered vulnerable but lack access to basic healthcare. Prior to the coup, sources said, health officials in Kayah state regularly provided vaccinations at local clinics, hospitals, monasteries, and care centers for mothers with young children.

Supply chain disruptions

But even residents of Myanmar's largest city Yangon told RFA that they have been unable to obtain vaccinations for children in the aftermath of the coup.

Pyae Pyae, the mother of a 15-month-old boy, said public hospitals in the city were no longer providing the jabs.

"I've consider buying the vaccines myself and getting them administered at a private clinic, but it isn't easy," she said.

"In the past, the government provided vaccines, but now I hear that some of them aren't available on the market."

A midwife from southern Shan State, who declined to be named, told RFA that the consequences of missing a vaccination could be fatal for young children.

"Of them all, BCG [(Bacille Calmette-Guérin) to prevent measles, mumps, and rubella] is the most time-sensitive because infants need to have it before they turn one year old," she said.

"Since the coup, many children are missing their window for the BCG vaccine. They are also at risk of infection from meningitis and tuberculosis. I am gravely concerned for the children."

According to the midwife, several different departments under the Ministry of Health normally work together to acquire, store, and distribute vaccines for various diseases. Since the takeover, she said, the nation's medical supply chain has suffered major disruptions, even resulting in shortages of basic medicines for diarrhea and dengue fever.

Attempts by RFA to contact the central office of the Department of Mother and Children Care under the Ministry of Health for comment on the status of the nation's vaccination drive went unanswered Friday.

Last week, UNICEF announced that nearly 1 million children have been unable to receive their regular vaccinations in Myanmar since the coup, while some 5 million are no longer receiving critical Vitamin A supplements, leaving them at risk of infectious diseases and blindness.

The agency said it is working with partner organizations to resume the vaccination drive for children in Myanmar.

In May, UNICEF said that the combination of a lack of access to key services and economic contraction in the wake of the coup had placed "a whole generation of children and young people in peril."

"Without urgent action, these children will suffer many negative impacts—physical, psychological, emotional, educational, and economic," the agency said at the time.

Outbreak in the capital

The concerning reports of lack of access to adequate healthcare for Myanmar's children came as the junta's Ministry of Health announced Friday that, as of July 8, more than 2,700 people had been infected with COVID-19 in the capital Naypyidaw and at least 18 have died since the coronavirus was first detected in the country early last year.

The Ministry of Health said on July 1 that 1,976 people had been infected with COVID-19 to date in the city, while 10 people had died from the disease. The new numbers represent a 40 percent leap in infections and 80 percent increase in deaths in the course of just one week.

In the wake of the new outbreak, authorities have issued a "stay-at-home" order in at least two townships in the capital region, shutting down local marketplaces and blocking off access roads. Movement has been restricted throughout the city, sources said.

"The virus has spread to almost everywhere in the Naypyidaw region," said one capital resident.

"We regularly witness the cremation of bodies of people who have died from the disease."

Another source told RFA that "hundreds of Buddhist monks" had been infected at the Ma Soe Yain monastery in Zabuthiri township, where Soe Moe Thu, a volunteer who is helping to send suspected COVID-19 patients to monitoring centers, said people with symptoms of the disease are "everywhere."

"We have to remain on standby to help these people around the clock," he said.

"Sometimes, we have to go and help them in the middle of the night. We arrange to provide them with oxygen tanks when they have problems breathing."

But Soe Moe Thu and other aid workers said the supply of oxygen in the capital is running dry.

Meanwhile, some confirmed patients have refused to go to hospitals controlled by the military and instead tried to treat themselves at home, they said.

Multiple attempts by RFA to speak with Dr. Thiri New, Naypyidaw's Public Health Department chief, about the situation of the outbreak in Naypyidaw went unanswered on Friday.

According to the Ministry of Health, at least 184,375 people have been infected with COVID-19 in Myanmar since the start of the pandemic, while 3,685 people have died.

Reported by RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane and by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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