Interview with Joe Belliveau, Operations Manager, OCA

What is the current situation on the ground in Myanmar?

We don't know the full extent of the situation, but from what we've seen in the southwestern corner of the Irrawady delta, the damage is massive and casualties are very high.  Many people have also lost their homes, and their sources of food and clean water.

What have the teams on the ground seen in terms of destruction and people who have been affected by the cyclone?

Our field teams have seen destruction on a massive scale in the Irrawady delta.  In some of the areas we've so far accessed, 95% of the houses and other buildings are destroyed.  

Where do you currently have teams working?

In Yangon, we have teams delivering food and plastic sheeting, as well as providing water and sanitation to groups of people who lost their homes, and our five long-running clinics in Yangon are open for consultations.  In the Irrawady delta, we have several teams operating in villages in the southwestern most part of the delta.  We have about 35 staff there with supplies (medical supplies, plastic sheeting and food) and are in the process of scaling up as fast as we can.  

What are the most urgent needs for the population?

The most urgent needs for the population are food, drinking water, shelter and medical care. 

Is it difficult for Medecins Sans Frontieres to work in Myanmar? Do you have the support of the government?

We normally face restrictions in Myanmar including lengthy visa application procedures, restrictions on movements within the country and denial of access to certain parts of the country.  Responding to emergencies is generally difficult if the emergency occurs outside our normal project areas as it usually takes a long time to negotiate access to new areas in the country.  Nevertheless, we are able to operate in a significant way in four states in Myanmar. 
Are the MSF teams having problems in accessing the worst hit areas?

So far the problems accessing the worst hit areas have been logistical, but we will need more supplies and more people to support our operations and for that we will need the government's permission to bring in international staff and cargo planes.  

Have any of the international or national staff been directly affected by the cyclone?

Most of our staff were affected in terms of some degree of material damage.  All our staff are ok though. 
Have any of MSF's long-term projects or patients been affected by the cyclone?

Our five clinics in Yangon were damaged but we were still able to restart our programs almost immediately while carrying out repairs.  A few dozen of our HIV/AIDS patients also lost their anti-retroviral treatment in the cyclone.  We have been able to re-supply all of them.  

What kind of work were you doing before the cyclone?

We work with the Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine state who are not recognized as legitimate citizens by the authorities and who therefore face severe economic hardship, harassment and, at times, violence.  Malaria is a major killer in this part of Myanmar.  Last year we treated more than 200,000 patients for malaria mainly in Rakhine.  In Shan and Kachin states and in Yangon, our focus is on HIV/AIDS - a major and under-addressed health emergency in Myanmar.  Well over 100,000 are in urgent need of ART in order to survive.  The government, UN and NGO's combined provide ART for about 11,000 patients, 9000 of whom are MSF patients.   
Have you treated any wounded people in your clinics?

In our clinics in Yangon, we have only treated a few wounded people.  However, in the delta about half the consultations we've done so far are for wounded.    

Are you treating any people for problems related to the lack of food or fresh water? What kinds of problems are you seeing?

We are concerned about diarrhea and tetanus and continue to distribute food and chlorinate water in order to help prevent major malnutrition and diseases related to poor quality water. 
Are the relief teams having difficulties entering Myanmar? What is the visa situation?

Cargo planes are just now starting to arrive in Myanmar.  Although the government has indicated it will facilitate clearance of these supplies it remains to be seen how far it will follow through on this.  

Are you planning to send extra supplies to help the situation?

MSF also has several cargo planes lined up to go to Myanmar in the coming days, the first of which leaves today (Friday).