I wanted to give children a fighting chance against tuberculosis – Wint Thu Naing

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Wint Thu Naing has been on numerous assignments with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the past nine years. Her latest was a six-month term in Tajikistan where she helped treat children with severe strains of tuberculosis as a laboratory scientist:

I don’t think I can ever forget her. The child suffered from tuberculosis (TB) and the disease had made her weak and skinny. My team strongly suspected that she had HIV too. We hoped we were wrong this time. Our days were fraught with nervousness after we sent her blood samples to the regional government unit for testing. We were impatient for the results and wished for the best. Rounds of investigations and three months later, her final results came back to us – she was HIV positive.

Children are particularly vulnerable to TB and HIV-AIDS and this is why I was looking for an assignment like Tajikistan. I simply wanted to do more! But it was after I arrived in the country that I understood the full extent of the problem afflicting children.

A bitter reality: Pediatric TB in Tajikistan

From what I have seen, there are serious issues regarding children. Often they don’t receive treatment in time because their family is of the opinion that a child cannot be infected. Sometimes they think it’s dangerous to treat them!

The diagnosis is not easy even if the child does come to the clinic. As a laboratory scientist, I know how hard it can be to get deep cough sputum, required to establish the presence of TB in a person’s body, from them.

Given the urgency of the situation facing Tajikistan’s countless children, my desire to help them grew stronger with each passing day.

Making adjustments

I’ve been to Ethiopia and Bangladesh among other countries with MSF and projects there were located in remote areas. However, the one in Tajikistan was in the heart of the capital, Dushanbe. My laboratory was as busy as the city, always buzzing with activity as samples from the MSF pediatric hospital and TB dispensary kept coming in. I sometimes struggled, at other times sailed through the daily load of work. I worked together with two Ministry of Health staff.

What was interesting for me during this period was training the Russian speaking staff through a translator. I have to admit it was hard: it was very difficult to explain laboratory techniques and to give theoretical explanations via a translator. I worked hard to build their capacity and knowledge. In order to make sure that they understood me, I told them to ask several questions.

My personal learning

Life on assignment can be demanding personally. Whenever I felt frustrated, I played with the children whom we worked for and just like that, I regained energy to put in more effort. I also tried to know my colleagues. It’s easier sharing difficulties with people you have a rapport with. What I found to be fun was trying to learn the local language and communicating with the local people. This proved to be a stress buster.

The knowledge that I gained in Tajikistan will help me fight TB wherever I go. By working with MSF, I’ve explored different countries and their healthcare situations. Even though I have been on many assignments, I still find each opportunity challenging every time. Perhaps this is why some people say that MSF is ‘infectious’. I’ve decided to come back again and again as I miss the kinds of challenges; the variety of these and the contexts make each experience worthwhile.

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