Crisis Escalates: Rohingya Refugees Face Alarming HIV Exposure in Bangladesh

Rabiul Alam, Dhaka

The Rohingya community in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, is in the throes of a deepening crisis, marked by an alarming surge in HIV infections. This report delves into the harrowing statistics, examining the correlation between the presence of Rohingya refugees and the escalating incidence of HIV infections in Bangladesh.

Out of the 1,135 individuals diagnosed with HIV in Cox’s Bazar, an overwhelming 927 are Rohingyas, according to the anti-retroviral therapy centre of Cox’s Bazar General Hospital. This starkly disproportionate exposure rate raises urgent concerns for both the Rohingya community and the healthcare professionals working closely with them.

Healthcare professionals, such as Dr Md Ashiqur Rahman, resident medical officer at Cox’s Bazar General Hospital, said the increased risks they face from undetected HIV patients within the Rohingya community. A recent incident involving a pregnant Rohingya woman testing positive for HIV underscores the potential transmission risk during medical procedures, necessitating preventive measures for medical personnel.

Despite efforts to conduct screening tests before surgeries for Rohingyas, challenges persist. Urgent cases requiring immediate operations sometimes limit the feasibility of immediate testing, leading to potential exposure risks. The lack of preventive measures, low awareness about AIDS, polygamic habits, and unsafe sexual contacts contribute to heightened exposure to HIV among the Rohingya population.

Dr Ashiqur said that the detected cases represent only the tip of the iceberg, as many patients present with other complications, and HIV testing becomes necessary upon examining their symptoms. Mass screening faces humanitarian challenges, preventing an accurate assessment of the true extent of HIV infection within the Rohingya community.

The broader scenario of HIV and death cases in Bangladesh, including Rohingya refugee HIV cases, adds another layer to the crisis. Between 2017 and 2022, a total of 4,987 individuals in Bangladesh were diagnosed with HIV, with 796 identified as Rohingyas. This subset represents a concerning 16% of the total cases, indicating a disproportionate impact on the Rohingya community. The observed trends also show an 86% increase in HIV-related deaths and a 103% rise in new HIV diagnoses among Bangladesh’s Rohingya minority.

The current issue of overcrowding in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh has placed a significant burden on existing infrastructure. Challenges in accessing essential services such as education, food, clean water, and sanitation compound the difficulties faced by the refugee population. Additionally, the Rohingyas are particularly susceptible to the adverse impacts of natural disasters and the spread of infectious illnesses.

Experts said the escalating HIV crisis among Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar demands immediate attention and comprehensive intervention. The intertwined challenges of transmission risks to medical professionals, limitations in screening and prevention, and the hidden scale of infection emphasize the need for collaborative efforts. 

“As the Rohingya community grapples with this growing crisis, prioritizing preventive measures, raising awareness, and ensuring accessible healthcare are crucial to mitigating the impact of HIV in the region.” they added.