Updated at 9:40 a.m. EST on 2017-11-14
Rohingya refugee Senoara Khatun knew nothing about HIV/AIDS until doctors found the immunodeficiency virus in her bloodstream, days after the expectant mother and her husband escaped to Bangladesh last month.
Khatun, 24, was 31 weeks into her term when she received the diagnosis, but it was too late to abort the pregnancy, the physicians told the couple. Khatun gave birth two weeks ago to their first child, a girl named Renu, who, as they feared, was born HIV-positive.
“After arriving here, we went for a regular check-up to see if everything was ok with her pregnancy. Two days later, doctors told us that she had this incurable disease, which could be transmitted to our child,” Khatun’s husband, Mohammad Shajahan, 33, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
Khatun and her newborn are among 62 cases of HIV – made up by a majority of women but also including at least 11 children – that have been confirmed in overcrowded Rohingya refugee camps along Bangladesh’s southeastern border, according to Dr. Shaheen Chowdhury, the resident medical officer (RMO) of a government-run hospital in Cox’s Bazar, where the mother and baby are being treated.
One of the 62, a woman, has since died of AIDS. Physicians and other health experts estimate that thousands of refugees in the camps are infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS, but have yet to be diagnosed.
“If we come to grips with the actual scale of the problem, it would be very frightening,” Chowdhury, who is overseeing the treatment of HIV positive Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, the southeastern district that houses the refugee camps and settlements, told BenarNews.
Myanmar – from where 615,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since Aug. 25, according to the latest U.N. estimates – has Southeast Asia’s second highest prevalence of HIV after Thailand, with about 230,000 people of the total population of about 51 million, living with the virus as of 2016, according to UNAIDS. Myanmar is one of 35 countries that together account for 90 percent of new infections globally.
“We estimate that at least 5,000 Rohingya, who have arrived in Bangladesh since Aug. 25, are HIV-positive,” Chowdhury said.
A military crackdown Myanmar’s Rakhine state spurred the ongoing influx of refugees. It followed attacks on police and army posts there that were blamed on Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents. About 1 million Rohingya refugees, including those who fled earlier cycles of violence in Rakhine, are sheltering in southeastern Bangladesh.
Abdus Salam, a government-appointed civil surgeon in Cox’s Bazar, said more than 2,000 doctors, interns and others were working to detect HIV at the refugee camps in the district.
“A lot of the Rohingya are either unaware they are HIV-positive or they try to hide it due to the stigma attached with the disease,” Salam told BenarNews.
However, of the 62 confirmed cases, only five – like Khatun – were unaware they were carrying the virus, Chowdhury said.
“The remaining 56 cases were detected in Myanmar and the carriers knew they were HIV-positive when they entered Bangladesh,” he said, adding that in many cases, the “reuse of disposable syringes” seemed to be the cause of transmission.
“It is a possibility that hospitals in Myanmar intentionally did this to harm the Rohingya population, but I don’t know. There is no way to confirm that,” he said.
The government of Buddhist-majority Myanmar does not recognize Rohingya Muslims as citizens and refers to them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Its security forces have been blamed for carrying out killings, rapes and arson against the community for decades, in what the U.N. has described as “textbook ethnic cleansing” of the persecuted Muslim minority.
61 being treated
While Senoara Khatun declined to be interviewed out of fear her neighbors would shun her if they came to know that she was HIV-positive, her husband, Shajahan, said she frequently fell ill over the last three years.
“Every time we went to a hospital [in Rakhine] they gave her some injections and sent her back. But she never got better,” he said. “We didn’t even know what HIV was until we came to Bangladesh.”
Chowdhury said five of the 61-HIV positive Rohingya who were being treated at his hospital were at “stage three,” meaning they wouldn’t last much longer.
“All HIV patients, including those at stage three, visit the hospital for their antiretroviral treatment and go back to the camps,” he said, adding that hospital staff also provided counseling to the patients and their guardians to help them maintain a positive state of mind.
Shajahan visits the Cox’s Bazar district hospital, which is about 50 km (31 miles) from his camp, almost every week.
“The counselor here tells me about HIV and guides me on ways we can help my wife and my baby lead a near normal life despite the infection. My only aim is to keep my wife and child alive and happy for as long as I can,” he said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version misspelled the name of civil surgeon Abdus Salam and incorrectly reported that 60 people were hospitalized for HIV/AIDS treatment.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.