A University of Otago initiative is helping shed light on the secretive country of Myanmar. Mike Houlahan reports.
After decades of military rule which saw it cloistered from the outside world, Myanmar is a mystery to many Westerners.
A new partnership between the University of Otago and University of Medicine (1) in Myanmar is aimed at helping bring down the barriers between the second largest country in Southeast Asia, and also at improving the quality of life for Myanmar's 60 million people.
The University of Otago's Centre for International Health is to collaborate with its Myanmarese counterpart on research, training, and capacity building in many areas of medicine - especially infectious disease.
The centre had a special focus on low-resource areas in the Asia-Pacific region, said co-director Prof John Crump.
Myanmar's size and the country's many health needs meant it had always been on the radar screen.
Myanmar started taking steps toward restoring democracy in 2008, and freed up rules on travel and access for foreigners. A Myanmarese PhD student at Otago provided the initial contact with University of Medicine (1) during one of her trips home, a conversation which has now lead to a firm partnership.
"We very much take the lead from our collaborators about which problems to focus on. I happen to work primarily in the area of infectious diseases and that's certainly a group of conditions responsible for a reasonable amount of illness and death in Myanmar, so that will be part of our initial focus," Crump said.
"But this is an institutional level agreement so we do hope it won't be restricted to my particular area of expertise, and that it would be a growing relationship that would allow for engagement in a range of areas, and not just be limited to health."
Myanmar had a range of pressing health needs and the Yangong-based University of Medicine (1) was the leader in a five university-strong cluster training medical professionals.
"Part of our contribution through research and training would be to help identify some of those underpinning causes for health problems and then to help provide the evidence base to target large scale interventions that can tackle those underlying causes," Crump said.
"Many of those (such as improving water supplies) could take many years to implement and then have a health effect so in the meantime there are a wide range of clinical and curative challenges that the health workforce in the country has to tackle."
Crump expected the relationship to start small, with post-graduate student exchanges between Otago and Myanmar, and build up as more academics became involved and the connection between the two institutions grew. Crump lived in Tanzania for 10 years before coming to Otago, and a similar institutional relationship there had seen "dozens" of people involved.
"The hope is that people will get involved as they see needs that they can help fulfil," Crump said.
"The University of Otago strategic plan includes an ambition to contribute to international progress, and we would hope this relationship would be one way the university can achieve that goal. By working together we would also hope to improve the development of staff and students at both institutions and provide opportunities in particular for those who want to work in the field of global health.
"We also want to be good neighbours to other countries in the Asia Pacific region, and relationships like this provide a means of building mutual understanding and joint efforts that have a range of long-term benefits that are difficult to fully appreciate at this early stage."
- D Scene