The British government is providing US $ 37 million to fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB) and malaria in Myanmar.
It is the first donation to an expected $100 million, five-year health fund for the prevention and treatment of the lethal diseases in the military-ruled country.
The new "Three Diseases Fund," which has been developed jointly by the UK, Australia, the European Commission (EC), the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, is intended to fill the gap left by last year's abrupt withdrawal of the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria from Myanmar.
The Netherlands has committed nearly $4 million to the fund, while the EC and other supporters of the plan were expected to pledge their donations soon.
The Three Diseases Fund was expected to support an expansion of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment activities including greater condom promotion, HIV testing and care and treatment for those living with AIDS. It would also support programmes aimed at TB diagnosis and treatment, and the use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets to reduce malaria.
Pro-democracy activists have long questioned the ability of foreign aid donors to provide effective humanitarian assistance to Myanmar's population without bolstering the country's repressive military rulers.
But Gareth Thomas, Britain’s minister for international development, said that Myanmar, treated as a virtual pariah by Western governments, was confronting a public health crisis the international community "cannot afford to ignore... any longer".
"We know that working in Burma [Myanmar] is difficult but our recent experience makes us believe that it is possible to make a difference," he said.
The country is suffering one of south-east Asia's most serious HIV/AIDS epidemics, fuelled in part by the heavy flow of migrant labourers to neighbouring Thailand, while Myanmar's own economy reels from the impact of military mismanagement and Western economic sanctions, including a US ban on all imports.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of labourers from Myanmar spend months working in Thailand's booming gem mines - magnets for the sex trade and drug use.
Myanmar ranks 32 among a list of 50 least developed nations surveyed by the United Nations. The lack of adequate infrastructure and access to resources affects millions of people in the country, who live in extremely poor conditions, with little access to health and education services.
In 2003 the junta, after years of denying that the country had an HIV/AIDS problem, woke up to the size of the epidemic and its potentially devastating social impact.
UNAIDS estimates up to 610,000 people, or 2.2 percent of the Myanmar population, are living with HIV, and that up to 46,000 are in immediate need of live-saving drugs.
But the country's public health system suffers from severe shortages of trained staff, equipment and medical supplies - the result of chronic under funding by the military government.
It also has one of the world's highest rates of TB, with up to 97,000 new cases and 12,000 deaths each year, while malaria is the leading cause of death of children aged under five.
Western countries - which have mainly focused on pressing the junta to relinquish power to a democratically elected government - have faced mounting calls from humanitarian workers to increase efforts to alleviate Myanmar's worsening health crisis.
The UK Department for International Development (DfID) said Myanmar received just $2 per person in foreign humanitarian and development aid in 2002, less than almost any other so-called 'fragile state,' including Zimbabwe, which received $15 per capita.
The Global Fund's $98m, five-year plan for Myanmar, the largest health initiative ever envisioned for the country, was cancelled last year after the junta imposed new travel restrictions on humanitarian workers. Aid workers said the controls had since been rescinded.
NGOs already operating in Myanmar, UN agencies, community-based organisations, private sector players and public health officials were expected to play a role in providing expanded health and education services.
Guy Stallworthy, country director in Myanmar for Population Services International (PSI), a US-based NGO that promotes condom use, called the initiative a "big improvement" over the Global Fund, saying donors would have greater flexibility to ensure money was used effectively, though they would have to remain vigilant.
"It could make a huge impact on those three diseases," he said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions