The Back Pack Health Worker Team (BPHWT) was founded to empower local communities to provide primary healthcare services to underserved populations in conflict affected areas of Burma, particularly in areas that international humanitarian organizations cannot reach. The formation of the BPHWT was led by Dr. Cynthia Maung, who has served as chairperson since its inception. Dr. Cynthia, a Karen physician who fled Burma as a result of her involvement with pro-democracy activities, initially established the Mae Tao Clinic in 1989 in Mae Sot, Thailand, for the thousands of students also forced to escape Burma at that time. Over the years, the clinic has developed into a comprehensive healthcare facility offering a wide variety of services, as well as medical and public health education training hundreds of healthcare workers.

In 1996, responding to increasing Burma Army attacks in eastern Burma and a worsening humanitarian crisis, Dr. Cynthia began sending mobile medical teams to provide primary health care in Karen, Karenni, and Mon States in eastern Burma. These teams were separately organized by the Mae Tao Clinic, ethnic health organizations, and individuals, and worked independently. In 1998, Dr. Cynthia and the Burma Relief Centre began to organize meetings of Mon, Karen, and Karenni health workers who desired to become more united and organized in providing care in their home communities just across the border. Recognizing the benefits of collaborating to standardize healthcare services throughout Eastern Burma, they agreed to work together to provide health services to vulnerable populations in conflict affected areas, while still providing care through clinics already established by their respective health departments across the border. A year later, this group of health workers formed the core of the BPHWT. The BPHWT was initially made up of 32 teams and 120 health workers serving a target population of 66,000 people in Mon, Karen, and Karenni States.

BPHWT strives to provide assistance based on community needs. Providing assistance in this manner requires respecting the traditions and culture of each community, utilizing local resources, collecting data in order to assess the unique needs of each community, seeking community feedback, and partnering with other local organizations that provide health-related services in Burma. Health workers, traditional birth attendants, and Village Health Volunteers/Workers are from and work in their home communities, and therefore speak the local language and are familiar with the health issues and risk factors particular to their area. The training and skills, which these staff and health workers develop by working with BPHWT, empower them to improve the health of their own communities as well as other communities in Burma.

BPHWT promotes a system that relies on community-based human resources.  As community members continue to increase their health knowledge and capabilities, they are more able to serve as health resources for their communities, thereby reducing reliance on clinic-based and BPHWT services over time, and ensuring communities’ ability to protect public health at a grassroots level. BPHWT continually provides training, supplies, and support, but it is the local populations who become more empowered and take charge of providing healthcare for their own communities.

So from our past of 32 Back Pack teams, the BPHWT now has 100 teams with 380 health workers and a network of 1,050 traditional birth attendants, village health volunteers, and village health workers serving a targeted population of approximately 225,000 people in Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shan, Kachin, Chin, and Arakan States and portions of Pegu, Tenasserim, and Sagaing Divisions of Burma. The BPHWT has occupied, and will continue to occupy a unique position in providing primary healthcare services to displaced and vulnerable populations in Burma, while at the same time, building a long-term, locally-sustainable, primary healthcare infrastructure for Burma. The BPHWT looks forward toward the day when its health workers become an integral component of a viable healthcare system in a federal union of Burma with peace, justice, and equality for all of its people.