Doctors narrow health care gap for Burmese refugees

By James Tabafunda

Mona Han and Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett at the “Perspectives on the Burmese Refugee Community” panel (Photo by James Tabafunda/NWAW)

Diversity among refugees from Burma (known officially as Myanmar) is significant, a result of their eight main ethnic groups and more than 130 distinct subgroups.

University of Washington (UW) medical student Eric Sid joined about 20 others to learn about the many health concerns they face. The May 7 event, “Perspectives on the Burmese Refugee Community,” took place at the UW’s Magnuson Health Sciences Building.

Organized by the UW School of Medicine–Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association, the panel was the third of five events celebrating May as Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

It featured panelists Mona Han, executive director of the Coalition for Refugees from Burma (CRB), and Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, a medical epidemiologist with the Communicable Disease Epidemiology and Immunization Section of Public Health – Seattle and King County.

“I think it’s very meaningful that you’ve chosen today to talk about a new immigrant group,” said Kwan-Gett at the panel.

“One that you can help establish as they take their first tentative, somewhat difficult steps to a new life in the United States.”

Kwan-Gett earned his medical degree from Harvard Medical School and completed his residency at Children’s Hospital and the UW Medical Center. He received an American Academy of Pediatrics Special Achievement award in 1998 for assisting migrant workers and refugees on the Thailand-Burma border. He continues to visit Mae Sot, Thailand, to provide medical care at the Mae Tao Clinic.

He talked about various causes of death for the 57 million people who live in the Southeast Asian country, one similar in size to Texas. Malaria, acute respiratory infection, and diarrhea — particularly among children — kill Burmese of all ages.

Tuberculosis and hepatitis continue to be major illnesses.

Gay Htoo, health educator at the International Medicine Clinic at Harborview Medical Center (Photo by James Tabafunda/NWAW)

“HIV AIDS is also a large problem on the Thai-Burma border,” Kwan-Gett said, while showing a photo of an HIV-positive child. “This child was adopted and able to immigrate to the West with his parents. He just has the most incredible, powerful charisma of almost any child I’ve ever met.”

“In Washington state, we had, in 2006, 19 refugees from Burma that were resettled in Washington state, and now, we have approximately 600 to 800 refugees from Burma every year in the past 3 to 4 years. Now, we have approximately 4,000 refugees from Burma resettled in the last few years, most living in King County,” said Mona Han, executive director of the CRB.

She then identified difficulty in understanding the U.S. health care system, the lack of language skills, and the lack of preventive care as the most common problems they face.

J. Carey Jackson, medical director of the International Medicine Clinic at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, says a new position has been created to improve their understanding of the health care system. “We have an outreach worker now that [focuses on the] Burmese [community], and this is a partnership with the Office of Refugee Resettlement. … She orients them to the system.”

The outreach worker, Gay Htoo, is a health educator who has worked in the clinic’s Refugee and Immigrant Health Promotion Program since February. A former resettlement case manager of Karen ancestry who speaks Burmese and Karen, she serves as an outreach worker to first determine their needs, before helping them with the basics like health insurance, when to visit a hospital’s emergency room, and how to properly take their medicines. Part of Htoo’s job is centered on education.

“I do like to teach. Since they don’t speak the language, I just want to share what I know,” said Htoo.

Trained as a physician and anthropologist, Jackson received his medical degree from Michigan State University in 1986. In 1994, he developed, with pediatrician Ellie Graham, the Community House Calls program, a medical-anthropological approach to helping non-English residents deal with social services and the health and legal systems in the United States. He has served as the director of the International Medicine Clinic since 1992.

“We think we have among the best interpreters in the country. They are employed by Harborview. They work throughout the system all the time,” said Jackson.

He views providing medical care to refugees and immigrants as an honor.

Jackson said, “Wave after wave after wave of people come through here and just humble me with their resilience and their desire to restart their lives.” (end)

For more information about the Coalition for Refugees from Burma and the International Medicine Clinic, visit and

James Tabafunda can be reached at

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