How Australia is promoting regional health – a visit to Thailand and Myanmar

Nola By Nola Marino, Member for Forrest, Western Australia, Chief Government Whip, Liberal Party of Australia

I recently had the privilege of leading a delegation of Australian Members of Parliament on a visit to Thailand and Myanmar to learn about the challenges posed by HIV, tuberculosis and malaria in our region. These three diseases are among the worlds’ most deadly: globally in 2015, TB was responsible for 1.8 million deaths; 1.1 million people died of AIDS; and malaria accounted for around 430,000 deaths.

The Asia-Pacific is a hotspot for emerging infectious diseases and drug-resistant strains of TB and malaria, and Australia has taken the lead in tackling these threats to our health security. Thanks to our investments in organisations such as the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, our leadership through the Asia Pacific Leaders’ Malaria Alliance (APLMA) and our bilateral and regional health programs, Australia has helped countries in our region take great strides against these diseases. Thailand for instance has reduced HIV infection rates by 75 per cent, while Myanmar has seen a decline of 40 per cent in new malaria cases since 2002. Once the world’s biggest killer, deaths from malaria have declined dramatically thanks to improved prevention and treatment measures.

The Pacific Friends of the Global Fund and APLMA organised the visit and did a great job showing the delegation how Australia’s commitment to health is helping our region become safer and more prosperous – good for Australia and for Australians travelling abroad.

A highlight of the visit was meeting the many wonderful people dedicating their lives to the well-being of their communities – including HRH Princess Soamsowali of Thailand, who has shown great leadership in tackling stigma and discrimination against those affected by HIV.

LNP delegates standing in front of a flagpole with the Flag of Thailand flying.
Ready for our meeting with HRH Princess Soamsowali in Bangkok, with other LNP delegates the Hon Damian Drum, Mrs Ann Sudmalis and Mr Chris Crewther.

Most of all we were impressed by the dedication of village health workers – doctors, nurses and volunteers in small townships such as Madauk, Myanmar.

Delegates and locals gathered around having a discussion.
Talking with young people affected by malaria in rural Myanmar.

People in these villages live with malaria as an everyday threat, but thanks to the introduction of inexpensive test kits and simple treatment regimes supported by the Global Fund, malaria is no longer the threat it once was. I was proud to see, first-hand, the impact on peoples’ lives made possible through Australia’s and the Global Fund’s support.

We learnt that the elimination of all three diseases is now in sight, but that the last few steps will be the hardest. Multi-drug resistant TB and drug-resistant malaria are emerging problems that if not urgently addressed, threaten a resurgence in these diseases. Remote communities in border areas of the Mekong countries (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam) are at particular risk. This is a problem that can’t be solved by one country alone. Mosquitoes and infectious diseases don’t respect borders, so countries must work together. Global Fund investments are helping countries in our region do just this, providing vulnerable communities with effective and simple prevention and treatment. In addition to working with governments, the Global Fund helps local organisations target hotspots for drug resistance that others struggle to reach. At the same time, APLMA is focusing on the critical job of drawing together government leaders and helping them meet their malaria elimination targets.

As one of the poorest and most ethnically diverse countries in the region, Myanmar has many challenges to overcome.  Australia is a long-standing supporter of Myanmar’s development and democratic reform agenda.  I was particularly delighted to meet again with a number of female parliamentarians I met when I was involved in the induction of new Myanmar Members of Parliament following their most recent election, and hearing about their progress. We saw another great example of the people-to-people links that exist between our two countries on our visit to Yangon’s University of Medicine 2, where we attended the opening of the University of New South Wales’ Kirby Institute office.

Delegates planting a small tree
Planting a tree with Professor David Cooper at the University of Medicine 2, Yangon, to mark the opening of the new Kirby Institute office. The delegation was proud to support Australia-Myanmar links for better public health research.

The opening marks a new phase of collaboration between the Kirby Institute and the University of Medicine to build research capacity in infectious diseases in Myanmar.

Australians can be immensely proud of our leadership and the impact our contribution to organisations like APLMA and the Global Fund have on people’s lives. Australia has great expertise in health and a deep willingness to share our knowledge and experience with our neighbours, to tackle problems we face as a region. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s recent appointment of an Australian Ambassador for Regional Health Security is another important step towards our goal of a safe, healthy and prosperous region. These are invaluable efforts for both Australia and our neighbours’ well-being. It was great to see how Australians and Australian aid are making a difference!

Delegates and children in a local village.
Delegates Dr Mike Freelander, Ms Madeleine King and Mrs Ann Sudmalis are welcomed by children in Pazun Myaung, Myanmar.
Class photo of staff and delegates.
Marking the opening of the Kirby Institute Office at the University of Medicine 2, Yangon.

Background note: An Australian Parliamentary delegation visited Thailand and Myanmar from 24-30 June 2017 on a program organised by the Pacific Friends of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Asia Pacific Leaders Malaria Alliance (APLMA). The visit aimed to increase awareness of the Global Fund’s work and the critical role Australia plays in leading the region’s response to threats such as drug resistant TB and malaria. The delegation of nine MPs was headed by Chief Government Whip Ms Nola Marino and included the Hon Damian Drum, Chief Nationals Whip, Senator Penny Wong, Opposition spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, and the Hon Catherine King, Opposition spokesperson for Health. The visit was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Mrs Nola Marino MP was elected as the Federal Member for Forrest in 2007. During the first Parliamentary sitting of 2008, she was appointed to the position of Deputy Opposition Whip and was also part of an Australian United Nations delegation to observe the elections in Cambodia later in the year. In 2015, Mrs Marino was appointed to the position of Chief Government Whip. In 2017, she was appointed as convener for the Australia-South and Central Asia Parliamentary Network of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. 

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