Eradicating Malaria and Inspiring Minds in Myanmar: A Conversation with Dr. Myaing Myaing Nyunt of the Duke Global Health Initiative

As part of its ongoing series “Conversations in Human Rights,” the Kenan Institute for Ethics facilitated a discussion with Dr. Myaing Myaing Nyunt during which she shared some of the ethical lessons learned over a career of directing research teams seeking to eradicate malaria. Dr. Nyunt has designed and led clinical and field research on malaria and malaria treatment outcomes in the United States, Zambia, Mali, China, and Bangladesh. She currently directs a rapidly growing malaria research program in Myanmar.

The Kenan Institute’s director, Dr. Suzanne Shanahan, posed several questions to Dr. Nyunt that probed the successes and challenges she faced directing research teams in Myanmar. Dr. Nyunt explained how she came to work on malaria research in terms that were at once deeply personal as well as professional. Being forced to leave Myanmar in the 1980s due to her opposition to the military regime in power, Dr. Nyunt’s early efforts to study the disease were on the borders of the country she called home. At first, she was discouraged after observing malaria’s devastating impact, but quickly found inspiration in the “pure science” of clinical trial work aimed at seeing which drug therapies worked best to fight malaria.

Dr. Shanahan asked Dr. Nyunt a question on the minds of many in the Duke community who have followed current events in Myanmar: is it ethical to engage with a regime accused of the crimes which the Myanmar government has been charged? Dr. Nyunt responded that it was not easy to reengage with a country she had fled in her youth and admitted that American audiences had difficulty seeing the rich cultural diversity of its people in the aftermath of the Rohingya crisis. However, the urgent need to improve the quality of life for Myanmar citizens made her receptive to new projects in the country, funded by the Open Society Foundations and the Gates Foundation. In Dr. Nyunt’s opinion, these projects have not only improved medical care in Myanmar, but also expanded its citizens’ intellectual horizons.

A key question that was raised during the discussion was how Dr. Nyunt’s scientific work was related to the process of accelerated political change in Myanmar over the past decade, which has led to a greater role for civilians, like Aung San Suu Kyi, in government. She spoke movingly of the strong relationships she and her research teams established with local people who are eager for exposure to viewpoints different than their own. “On many levels, there is a feeling of making a small difference” she reflected. Myanmar’s international isolation for many years fragmented its civil society which in turn made it difficult to have conversations involving new points of view.

Dr. Nyunt’s research protocols (which bring together diverse stakeholders from the government, the military, and Myanmar’s ethnic groups) create a space for new avenues for combating malaria, but also provide spaces to consider novel approaches to ethical challenges. Dr. Nyunt and her colleagues made research ethics a top training priority for their local partners, including the right that potential subjects had to refuse to work with the researchers. Imagine their surprise, when they discovered that some of their local partners adapted this clinical trial rule to their everyday interactions with those in authority! This is but one example of the reciprocal exchange of knowledge that took place with local partners: each group learning valuable lessons from the other.

Asked about her vision for Myanmar twenty years from now, Dr. Myunt expressed her hope that the open, transparent conversation with the international community she has been a part of will lead to future Myanmar scientists becoming part of the global research community where they freely exchange ideas. She encouraged the Duke audience to contact her if they had an interest in working in Myanmar and urged them not to shun the country’s rich cultural diversity when so much good work remains to be done.

Gautam Chebrolu is a P’17 Alum

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