Brave young Myanmar doctors head to disaster zone

YANGON (Reuters) - The young doctors of Myanmar treating cyclone survivors may see things many doctors never see.

A girl reads a book as she hangs wet clothes on logs to dry at a village hit by Cyclone Nargis, outside of Yangon May 19, 2008. REUTERS/Strringer

Hundreds of doctors barely out of Yangon medical schools are taking crash courses on how to treat people in a disaster, choosing to work independently instead of going to camps run by a military government that has shut out many foreign aid workers.

At a one-day seminar organized by a Malaysian charity, an American psychologist talked about traumatized patients and two Swedish doctors told them what they would face.

“They are young, eager and brave,” said Charles Randquist, who runs a plastic surgery clinic in Sweden. “And they’ll see things most doctors have never seen.”

They warned of the danger of bites from vipers that follow rats to food stores, rasping skin burns from wind and waves, infections and respiratory problems from water polluted feces, mud and fungus.

They drew up a rough plan of how to establish a medical station with toilets kept well away from water and food in an attempt to prevent cholera outbreaks in the Irrawaddy Delta, which was devastated on the night of May 2 by Cyclone Nargis.

“When we found we couldn’t do surgery in the delta, we tried to help train as many people as possible,” said the other Swedish doctor, Stefan Amer.

The pair, who worked in Thailand in the days after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, have given talks to 300 doctors in the past week as the toll of dead and missing rose to 134,000, with about 2.4 million believed to be destitute.

The World Health Organization says the health system is “highly under-resourced” in the impoverished Southeast Asian country of 53 million formerly known as Burma.


Some of the 150 doctors in the seminar at Myanmar Medical Association headquarters said army-run treatment camps were a sham. With foreign aid workers barred, the military has bussed young doctors into the area, according to diplomats on an official tour over the weekend.

“It’s all just for show,” according to one 21-year-old junior doctor, who said some colleagues from his Yangon hospital had gone to work in army-run hospitals.

“There are few medicines, and all they do is put their house coats on and pose when officials go to visit.”

The doctor, who has a year of internship left of six-year medical studies, had bought medicines with donated money and led a convoy of eight vehicles to Bogalay, one of the towns hardest hit by Nargis. Private relief groups and charities were also taking groups of doctors to the disaster zone.

While the United Nations and people around the world are eager to help survivors, the generals ruling Myanmar have at times appeared indifferent to the plight of the sick and needy.

Some of the doctors interviewed said they are skeptical they would ever have the chance to use their skills properly because of harassment by the feared military intelligence.

A week after the cyclone, a group of 20 junior doctors treated some of the hundreds of homeless people crammed into Bogalay’s monastery and primary school.

“There was a lot of diarrhea and bad cuts,” said another 21-year-old junior doctor. “But we couldn’t stay long because military intelligence people kept photographing and asking us what we were doing there.”

Writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Valerie Lee