Bogale, Myanmar, 10 June 2008 — Every morning since Cyclone Nargis made landfall, Doctor Ye Lwin has been getting up at five o’clock. After morning prayers, he starts seeing patients who have travelled a long way to come to the makeshift clinic UNDP has set up at its Bogale township office.
When he finishes seeing patients there, Lwin, 55, puts on his life vest and gets into the diesel-powered boat UNDP acquired just a few weeks ago. He remembers being scared when he first rode it. The speed made him feel like the boat would tip over. But the new boat halved the travel time — from five to two, three hours — to the remote villages where he is the survivors’ only chance for receiving any medical care.
Before the cyclone, Lwin worked in northern Myanmar’s Mandalay Division on UNDP’s Integrated Community Development Project, which provides reproductive health and basic hygiene training to the communities, as well as small-scale rehabilitation of clinics. In the cyclone devastation, UNDP and its implementing partner PACT dispatched a small number of medical teams to travel by road and waterways to the delta and treat some of the 20,000 people officially reported as injured. Lwin volunteered to come to Bogale to help communities with his medical expertise.
His log indicates that in the last three weeks, he has treated about 1,300 patients in 11 villages and the township. Many of them suffer from general weakness, malnutrition, skin-infection and abdominal pain. When they have a fever, he cannot tell whether they are suffering from malaria, he says, because the diagnosis cannot be confirmed without blood tests. Instead, he administers medicines and gives them hygiene kits and multi-vitamins he has brought with him. The medicines and “family kits,” containing toothbrush and toothpaste, soap and towel, come from UNDP and NGOs like Médicins Sans Frontière and the Bogale Township Association.
“Most times I have to clip their fingernails,” said Lwin, “because eating with dirty hands gives them abdominal pain. Clipping fingernails is a routine now.”
The cyclone raised the water level up to 12 feet. Salt water engulfed most of the ponds which used to provide drinking water. So people drank coconut water to survive. Monks from nearby monasteries shared rice. Some villagers had to take clothes from the dead bodies before burying them because they didn’t have any clothes of their own. Agencies have been able to reach only about half of the more than 580 villages in the township because of limited access. Lwin suspects that once the need for shelter and food is met, he could develop a simple but essential hygiene programme that would provide the villagers with health education.
In Mandalay, UNDP had given him a motorbike, not a motor boat, so he could travel to more than 330 villages to treat patients.
“My boat is very fast,” he said with a smile. “I’m very tired, but I’m very happy because I can give support.”
Story by Katrin Park, for United Nations Development Programme 2008.