© J. Wells

“In my village in Pa’an district, there aren’t any nurses or clinics. Women can’t access healthcare and some die after delivery. Most children are very thin and suffer low weight because they have no food; they eat boiled rice water. When I become a public health worker, I will go back and work for my village.” 
— Public Health Institute Student

For the more than 140,000 refugees in the camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border, opportunities for higher education are extremely limited. Further, there is a critical shortage of trained health workers in the region, where civil conflict and government restrictions continue to limit health services, and exacerbate already high rates of maternal and child mortality and illness in eastern Myanmar.

Enter the Public Health Institute, offering training and field fellowships for 20-24 students per year living in Umpiem Mai refugee camp (site of a devastating fire in Feb. 2012). This first-of its-kind project grew out of our partners’ needs and vision, with CPI providing technical support and training. Amanda Martin, PHI's former director of curriculum development, was at the camp three to four days a week, teaching and adapting curriculum and training to the refugee camp and border context.

“Amanda emphasized  making the program experiential and applicable with the students practicing data collection, sampling techniques and community education. They use their new skills in role playing, presentations and debates,” said Jen Leigh, former CPI Field Director. “We see the Public Health Institute as a long-term investment in the capacity of our partners, and one that will provide refugees with population health skills in high demand along the Thai-Burma border.”

Weekly guest lecturers from community-based and non-governmental organizations — such as the Mae Tao Clinic, the International Rescue Committee and Shoklo Malaria Research Unit — come to the camp to expose students to the work being done on the border and preview opportunities for year two of the program: a fellowship placement with one of 22 organizations that has agreed to mentor PHI graduates, helping them  develop the leadership skills to strengthen public health services in their own communities. The fellowship matching process for the first cohort of students, who will graduate in April, is underway.

Myanmar allocates approximately 0.3% of GDP to health services, the least amount among Southeast Asian countries. Access to professional health services is severely constrained in eastern Burma, where active civil conflict and government restrictions have limited the operation of international NGOs, and rates of maternal and child mortality and illness are exceedingly high.

The Public Health Institute is an innovative community-based approach, harnessing the large human resource of refugees to expand the health workforce in eastern Myanmar, providing occupational stability to refugees and strengthening health infrastructure on the Thailand-Myanmar border. The focus of the program is evidence-based public health, and how students can bring information and expertise to promote behavior change in their communities on the border and inside Eastern Myanmar.

The Public Health Institute also has global implications: Approximately 15% of the world’s population lives in fragile states, where failure to address human resource shortages threatens achievement of the UN’s global Millennium Development Goals. The Public Health Institute not only provides immediate benefits to refugees and internally displaced populations along the Thai-Burma border and builds the capacity of INGOs and CBOs in the region, it also establishes a precedent for health workforce training in other humanitarian settings around the world.

CPI is grateful for a generous CPI donor whose support was critical in getting The Public Health Institute project off the ground and in leveraging additional institutional resources.  We’re thrilled to announce that the International Rescue Committee and USAID agreed to fully fund the project beginning in January 2012. GHAP intends to provide two and a half years of technical and mentoring support; Umpiem camp is expected to have the tools and human resources needed to implement the Institute independently by mid-2014.