- Associated Press - Thursday, December 27, 2012

ZEE PHYU KWIN, Myanmar — In her long, scarlet sarong, crisp white shirt and nurse’s cap pinned neatly in place, Khin Aye Nwe looks as though she belongs in a modern hospital.

Instead, the midwife’s clean sandals scuff across the dusty cement floor of a dilapidated clinic in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta.

She covers a territory spanning 15 villages with 3,000 people, delivering babies, immunizing children and treating everything from malnutrition to malaria in an area where 80 percent of young children and pregnant women are anemic.

For half a century, such work was almost completely ignored by the secretive military-run government, which starved virtually every sector of the budget except defense.

Now, with the dramatic change that has given Myanmar an elected government, there are hopes for improvement, but the country faces a long climb.

Under military rule, it spent less than $1 per person on health in 2008, minus donor money, and ranks among the lowest in nearly every category of nations’ health care funding.

Despite the neglect, Ms. Nwe and a small army of other dedicated women have continued to fan out across the country’s vast rice basket to help the sick.

They walk, ride buses, climb inside rickety boats and hop on the backs of motorbikes to reach patients who have no other source of medical care.

The work is exhausting, and Ms. Nwe knows that no matter how hard she pushes herself, it never will be enough to help everyone. But she says now, for the first time, there’s reason to hope.

“I’m not seeing it here yet,” she says, softly. “I haven’t seen the improvements or changes yet, but I think it will come.”

The excitement following a wave of political reforms and historic international visits is easily felt in bigger cities such as Yangon, formerly called Rangoon, where T-shirts adorned with pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s face are hawked at roadside stalls and Western business people are filling up hotel rooms.

But a half-day’s drive away into the delta, it’s harder to sense that energy among the poor who live meal-to-meal in flimsy thatch huts on bamboo stilts along coffee-brown rivers and rice paddies.

After being isolated from the rest of the world for so long, many expect very little in a country where running water and electricity are still considered luxuries in many areas.

A dire health care system

For years, the U.S. and others used economic sanctions to pressure the junta to clean up its dismal human-rights record and allow democratic reforms.

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