Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A visit to RTIC and Ta Nao Si Health Center.

On March 27th, I was able to visit Rajanagarindra Tropical Disease International Centre (RTIC) and Ta Nao Si Health Center, in Suan Phueng district, Ratchaburi province, near Thailand's western border with Burma (Myanmar).

How did it happen? Well, a very good old friend of mine from my high school days in Maryland, U.S. took me there. He was one of my best friends there, but an year after I returned to Japan he also needed to go back to his home country, Thailand, and as our lives got busier, our emails became sporadic. However, as our lives progressed, so did information technology, and one day he invited me to Facebook, a social networking service (SNS) which is especially popular among university students in the U.S. with well over 85% of them being members. We've been in close touch ever since, and I had a chance to see him this spring for the first time in nine years.

He majored in public health and epidemiology in university, and as that implies, shares a lot of common interests with me. We could go on talking for hours and hours, until our tongues became numb. And... he is also a humanitarian junkie. He's a highly-motivated, passionate, yet kind and thoughtful person who always used to talk about how he wanted to do good for his country and its people. So well, when I asked him if I could take a peek at some places he know that can be visited during my time frame there, he happily offered me to take me here.

RTIC, or the Suan Phueng Research Unit, run by Mahidol University's Faculty of Tropical Medicine and supported by the Tropical Disease Trust Fund under the Princess Galyani Vadhana, is one of the faculty's research stations for conducting research on tropical diseases. The facility's primary activities are (1) provision of health services (especially against infectious diseases) for the local people, (2) field epidemiology training for students from not only the faculty but from other countries as well, including Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Burma, and (3) research of infectious diseases (mainly malaria) in the area.

Suan Phueng is a small district in Ratchaburi Province, located on the border with Burma, which is just a 15-minute drive from RTIC. It has an area of 2,545 square kilometers, consists of seven sub-districts with 8,254 households and a population of 66,972. Over 90% of the population are mainly Thai-Karen of low socio-economic status, some of who do not carry Thai identity cards. Along with 13 health centers, they also have a community hospital with 30 beds, about 30 minutes from RTIC. Common health issues of the people living in this area include malaria, dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF), filariasis, tropical skin diseases, intestinal helminthiasis, and malnutrition.

When we visited, Dr. Maneeboonyang of Mahidol University was on duty at RTIC and he happily welcomed us and gave a brief tour of the center. According to him, this area has the highest prevalence of malaria in Thailand at around 12-13%. The kingdom is one of only a handful of countries that have succeeded in eliminating and controlling this notorious mosquito-borne disease, however, it still remains a big issue along the border with Burma. But still, the situation has been improving, since prevalence was around 30% only a decade ago, with at least one person in every single household having malaria in one of the hamlets. According to Dr. Maneeboonyang, RTIC sees 10 patients per day in the dry season (January - April) and over 30 during the rainy season, and out of that, about two and six people are diagnosed with malaria, respectively.

After the tour, he was kind enough to take us to Ta Nao Si Health Center, which is one of 13 health centers in Suan Phueng district. It provides primary medical care, immunization, and antenatal care for the local residents. We had a chance to have a short talk with the public health officer there, and according to him, the top three common diseases in the village are malaria, diarrhea, and flu, though hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes are becoming a problem especially among the elderly.

At the end, we had an opportunity to drive around the village to see some homes of the Thai-Karen, which look different from the traditional Thai examples. It was not long before the sun was starting to set and so we had to leave the area (local roads are without pavement and lights), but the staff at RTIC were kind enough to offer me to visit again, next time staying for a few days. And there is also Tak province, sometimes called the "humanitarian aid mecca of Thailand", and the Thai-Burma border area there, about an eight-hour drive from Bangkok. I definitely have to and sure will come back again.

Many thanks to my friend. :-)