Continuing Canadian support for the Yangon Children’s Hospital

WATCH: More than 30 years ago, the Canadian government gifted a building to the people of Myanmar. It houses Yangon's children's hospital. Hundreds of patients are treated inside its walls each day, but the hospital is understaffed and under equipped. Doctors there are hoping that Canada may be able to help once again. Melanie De Klerk reports.

YANGON, Myanmar — A plaque with a Canadian maple leaf sits prominently at the entrance Yangon Children’s Hospital. It’s a reminder of how one of only a handful of facilities dedicated to helping kids, in a vast country of 53 million people, was made possible thanks to support from Canada.

The hospital has been serving children since the late 1970’s when it was the only such medical centre in all of Myanmar.

The original building was started in 1970 and opened as a gift from the Canadian government in 1978 — that gift has never been forgotten.

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Over the years, other hospitals were built around the country and there are now four pediatric hospitals in Myanmar, but the Yangon Children’s Hospital is still the only one with specialized facilities.

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“If you need advanced forms of management like pediatric oncology, neurology and nephrology, we have those facilities across the road,” says Dr. Ye Myint Kywa, head of the pediatric teaching program at the hospital. “This is new and only we have these kinds of facilities right now.”

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Walking through the hallways and wards, it’s evident that like many hospitals it is overcrowded.

With official space for 550 patients, the hospital sees an average of closer to 800 patients a day. It’s not unusual to see patients in hallways waiting for bed space.

Staff are hoping the hospital will gain more bed space through expansion, over the coming years, but that’s just the beginning of what’s needed to keep up with demand.

Kyaw has seen firsthand some of the sickest patients come from every corner of Myanmar. But despite the fact the hospital is better equipped than others, he says there is still a lot the hospital needs. The hospital is both short staffed and short on equipment.

“We still haven’t got [a] facility to do cardiac catheterization,” Kyaw says. “This is a huge lab. We need with a lot of equipment and a lot of expertise.”

So, Kyaw says, they improvise, wearing multiple hats.

“For example we don’t have pharmacists. Every doctor is supposed to be acting the role of pharmacist too.”

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As he points out, they don’t just need staff but they really do need trained specialists. The hospital is hoping that a recent visit by doctors from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children might just help with that.

Dr. Stanley Zlotkin was one of the Canadian doctors to visit Myanmar and the Yangon Children’s hospital.

The visit came about after conversations with Canadian Ambassador to Myanmar Mark McDowell.

“He requested that we actually go to Myanmar on a fact-finding visit, to determine which are major issues and problems around maternal, newborn and child heath in the country,” Zlotkin told Global News. “Given our background in doing both research and capacity building education among health professionals around the world, [McDowell] was wondering whether the Hospital for Sick Children could play a role in the development of the health system in Myanmar.”

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Zlotikin says the conditions he saw on his tour, of not just the Yangon Children’s hospital but other medical facilities around the country, were daunting.

“It’s a country with the population of about 53 million, bigger than Canada, with very rudimentary or limited facilities to indentify, treat and follow children with various types of health conditions,” he says.

With the visit complete, Kyaw and his colleagues at the Yangon Children’s Hospital are now waiting to find out if Canada can once again help bring better health care to one of the world’s poorest nations.

“Canada, they have looked at every possible area we can get some help from them. We haven’t decided which area to start first,” Kyaw says.

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“We are still in the process of deciding what would be the best way to help children in Myanmar and helping the hospital may be one component of what we do,” Zlotkin says.

“We think we can play a role in what we call capacity building. The chief of the hospital said, ‘One of the major needs in the country is uplifting of our health professionals, from community health workers, from midwives to nurses, to physicians, to pediatricians.'”

Whatever help comes from Canada and other countries is desperately needed.

Doctors are hopeful that the new era of openness, after years of international isolation, and the recent electoral win for a non-military-backed party, will mean more resources for the most vulnerable children in Myanmar.

That way, the staff and doctors of Yangon Children’s Hospital can get back to the business of being kids.

Melanie de Klerk travelled to Myanmar as a recipient of the 2015/2016 Asia Pacific Foundation Media Fellowship.