July 23, 2012

Myanmar health leaders take Johns Hopkins bioethics lessons home

The impact of intensive summer bioethics courses extends around the globe as health leaders from Myanmar take their lessons home.

Myaing Myaing Nyunt, an assistant professor of clinical pharmacology and international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has long been interested in developing bioethics training in her native Myanmar. When she learned that the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics would be holding intensive courses for the first time in June 2012, she met with BI Director Ruth Faden and Nancy Kass, deputy director for public health, to discuss the prospect.

“Change is happening now in Myanmar. It’s a huge opportunity now with new doors opening up,” Nyunt says. “When I told Dr. Kass I wanted to bring bioethics to Myanmar, she said, ‘Why don’t you start by bringing some scholars here for our intensive courses?’”

Even with the institute’s waiving tuition, Nyunt says it seemed impossible, with only weeks before the courses were to start, to arrange travel both logistically and politically. But her passion was infectious, and with only a few phone calls, the pieces began to fall into place.

“A lot of people worked together to make this happen,” Nyunt says. She credits Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels for supporting the effort and requesting expedited visas and passports for a group of health officials and academics. She also was able to raise funds from the Open Society Foundations and the Malaria Group of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Maryland.

“People wanted to help,” Nyunt says.

Four representatives from Myanmar’s health care field spent three weeks at Johns Hopkins and attended nearly 30 intensive bioethics classes. They were Myint Htwe, chair of Myanmar’s Ministry of Health Ethical Review Committee; Myo Khin, director general of the Department of Medical Research (Lower Myanmar); Nay Soe Maung, rector of the University of Public Health; and Yin Thet Nu Oo, a research faculty member at the University of Public Health. For Htwe and Khin, this trip marked a return to Johns Hopkins, where both were educated.

In addition to attending every one of the courses offered, the Myanmar group was invited to workshops with Johns Hopkins physicians and institutional review board members, including Catherine D. DeAngelis, a professor at the schools of Medicine and Public Health and editor in chief emerita of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The learning went both ways, as members of the group gave presentations across the East Baltimore campus and shared firsthand accounts of health and bioethics in the developing world.

Oo says she appreciated the bioethics courses’ application of theories and principles to analysis of potential issues in different areas of practice, research and policymaking.

Nyunt emphasizes the importance of having Oo, a junior faculty member, attend the courses.

“We have been living in the dark, cut off from the rest of the world,” she says, discussing the 20-year knowledge gap between older and younger generations, a result of intellectuals leaving Myanmar to work internationally. She says it is crucial for the international community to realize just how much assistance young professionals in Myanmar will need to compete internationally, and how much less emphasis exists there on educating and training the next generation.

“We have had a ‘brain drain’ in Myanmar for the past 20 years,” Nyunt says. “Including younger people in these training opportunities is essential for long-term change.”

Htwe, speaking on behalf of the group members about their experience at the Berman Institute, said, “These bioethics courses have broadened our knowledge horizon, led us to a clear thought process and sent us to greater heights of understanding, especially the importance of bioethics in the field of health, be it clinical, research or public health. This is because of the clear-cut explanation and interactive discussion, together with real-life scenarios exemplified by the experienced, knowledgeable, well-read and highly committed faculty. [The experience was] highly appreciated, a time well-spent.”

For Htwe and Khin, the visit also provided an opportunity for them to reunite with their former professor and mentor, Timothy Baker, who founded and built the Bloomberg School’s Department of International Health. For Khin, it had been 22 years. At a presentation shortly before the Myanmar group’s departure, Baker nodded as Khin described the former Myanmar community at Johns Hopkins that had all but disappeared, and how good it was to be back collaborating with Johns Hopkins professionals once again.

In his presentation, Htwe said, “Our number-one take-home message is that ethical issues must be at the forefront.” He also cited the class taught by Faden and her lesson that bioethics in the developing world must consider the underserved.

“We are not in the infantile stage of bioethics; we are in the neo-natal stage,” he said.

Khin echoed this sentiment and introduced a path forward by citing a far different American inspiration. Announcing plans for a three-day bioethics workshop in Myanmar starting Sept. 17, he recalled Henry Ford’s assembly line. “A big job isn’t so big when it’s broken into parts, and that’s what we will do.”