HIV infections among the Rohingya in Bangladesh have been increasing for months. Experts blame social stigma and a lack of awareness for the spread of the disease.
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are increasingly vulnerable to contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, medical experts say.
According to latest data released by the Bangladeshi government, 395 Rohingya living in refugee camps in Cox's Bazar have so far been infected with the deadly virus, with 105 new cases identified this year.
The real number of those infected could be much higher than the official figure, say experts. They call on authorities to put in place measures to check the spread of the diseases.
The Rohingya are an ethnic minority in Myanmar originating from the Indian subcontinent. For several centuries they have lived predominantly in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine — also known as Arakan. They are predominately Muslim.
They are not officially recognized by the government as citizens, and for decades Myanmar's Buddhist majority has been accused of subjecting them to discrimination and violence.
More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine after the Myanmar military launched a crackdown in 2017 and were forced into squalid camps across the border in Bangladesh.
The HIV crisis
A few months after the Rohingyas' arrival in Cox's Bazar, Bangladeshi authorities — with the support of non-governmental organizations — carried out medical tests and identified 85 HIV cases.
And the number has been on the rise since then.
A study conducted by the medical science publication, the Lancet, showed that by August 2018, 273 cases of HIV had been officially recorded among the Rohingya in Bangladesh. That number rose to 319 as of March 8, 2019, with more undiagnosed cases likely, according to the journal.
Among the 319 HIV cases, 277 were taking medication and 19 had died, Lancet said.
Meanwhile, data published by Bangladesh's Health Ministry recently put the total number of HIV infections among the Rohingya at 395.
Lack of awareness and social stigma
Public health experts say a lack of awareness about sexually transmitted infections as well as social stigma are hindering efforts to tackle the problem.
Like in other conservative societies, the Rohingya often ostracize any member of their community infected with HIV. For fear of becoming an outcast, those with HIV hesitate to seek medical help, Mohammad Abdul Matin, a doctor working in Cox's Bazar, told DW.
Many Rohingya also view HIV in the same vein as normal illnesses like a cough or fever, said Asif Hossain, a medical officer working at the Dhaka-based Population Services and Training Center.
"It's been difficult to convince them about the seriousness of the disease," Hossain told DW. "Many patients even ignore the doctor's advice when it comes to issues like sexual intercourse."
Immediate attention needed
To prevent the crisis from getting worse, Lancet said, authorities need to pay immediate attention to raise the Rohingya's awareness of HIV and bring about behavioral change.
The publication also urged that existing health-care providers be empowered to identify and to treat people with HIV. It also called on the Bangladeshi government and relevant international agencies to recognize HIV as a priority "to prevent the negative health and socioeconomic consequences of this latent epidemic."
Many international agencies have been active in the refugee camps to offer public health support to the Rohingya. These organizations also provide HIV screening services to the patients.
But these screening centers are not sufficient to address the needs of around a million refugees in need of humanitarian assistance, experts said.
Abdul Matin, the doctor, said there's a high need to increase the number of HIV screening centers in the camps.
He also stressed the importance of organizing a massive awareness-raising campaign among the refugees. This, the doctor said, could push the Rohingya to come to the medical camps and screening centers, where they could seek help. "When they come to seek medical care for usual diseases, we check their HIV status as well," Abdul Matin said.
Health expert Hossain also believes raising awareness is the only way to put a check on the spread of the HIV crisis among the Rohingya.