Rohingya urge steps to curb hepatitis in squalid Bangladesh camps

Country’s chief health coordinator pledges to conduct camp-based survey on disease to find effective solution.

Rohingya urge steps to curb hepatitis in squalid Bangladesh camps

Tensions have mounted among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh after an alarming report of hepatitis spreading in squalid makeshift tents in the border district of Cox's Bazar.

"We are really concerned since many of us have hepatitis and other skin-related diseases, and we are worried about spreading all infectious diseases in the camps rapidly because of the living conditions in the crammed camps," Mohammad Abdur Rahim, a Rohingya in Kutupalang camp, told Anadolu Agency.

One-fifth of the adult Rohingya living in 34 refugee camps in a hilly site of Bangladesh’s main tourist hub of Cox’s Bazar, is infected with hepatitis C virus, according to a recent study.

The National Liver Foundation of Bangladesh (NLFB) conducted the study titled "High Prevalence of Hepatitis B and C Virus Infections Among Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh: A Growing Concern for the Refugees and the Host Communities," which was published in January 2022 by a journal of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.

This is a type of liver inflammation, and the five major hepatitis viruses are A, B, C, D, and E.

Dr. Md. Atiar Rahman, assistant professor at Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition at the country's lone medical university, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, told Anadolu Agency that hepatitis C is primarily transmitted through unsafe coitus and blood testing of multiple people with the same syringe.

“It is impossible to maintain hygienic rules properly in the Rohingya refugee camps all the time. The needy people are not even aware of the disease, and they are not fully aware of the usage of syringes during blood testing and other medical treatments," Rahman observed.

Women are easily infected by husbands, and newborns may come into touch with germs through infected mothers, he added.

“As early marriage without health check-ups, fast population growth in an unhygienic environment with limited health facilities, and sharing the same needles during inoculation have all contributed to the disease spreading among the stateless community," he said, suggesting that immediate medical tests on a massive scale to sort out all infected patients are very important to protect them.

Dr. Ambia Parveen, a prominent medical doctor and co-founder of the Rohingya Medics Organization, told Anadolu Agency that the vital point is to ensure health facilities for as many Rohingya as possible in the crammed camps.

"Many countries have successfully averted infectious hepatitis C through various approaches. But, sadly, the situation in our community, particularly in Rohingya refugee camps, is critical due to a lack of medical and diagnostic facilities," Parveen, who is also the head of the European Rohingya Council, noted.

She observed that the poor are suffering from a variety of physical and mental problems, and they rarely test for hepatitis, as do pregnant women.

Big pain

Rahim, a schoolteacher before fleeing the brutal military crackdown in Myanmar's Rakhine State in August 2017, described the study as "serious" for them.

"The teeming camp environment is exactly suited to the quick spread of any infectious disease," he remarked.

The awful report has been published for more than six months, but they have not seen any significant progress on the matter, he alleged.

Underlining the issue as another big pain for the persecuted people, Mohammad Ziaur Rahman, a teacher at a camp-based Rohingya learning facility, told Anadolu Agency that after hearing this report, they are passing every day with tension.

“While we are normally frustrated by the uncertainty of peaceful repatriation with citizenship rights and safety guarantees, such an alarming report has scaled up our plights,” Rahman said.

He added that newborns were being added regularly in the packed camps. "We meet at random, and multiple families share a single bathroom, exacerbating the already deplorable living conditions."

Camp-based survey

Dr. Abu Toha M.R.H. Bhuiyan, a chief health coordinator at the office of Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC), told Anadolu Agency that hepatitis, like HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), requires counseling to prevent.

"We are now counseling to the best of our abilities in the camps so that those who have already been infected with hepatitis do not meet others at random," Bhuiyan said, adding that the Bangladesh government has already requested all aid agencies and service providers, including the Turkish Field Hospital, to be more active in combating hepatitis among the Rohingya.

The World Health Organization (WHO) would launch a special campaign to eradicate hepatitis in the camps, he asserted.

“Bangladesh government has already instructed us to screen out how many hepatitis patients are living in Rohingya camps. We will start a camp-based survey to identify all patients to provide them treatment,” Bhuiyan added.

Underlining the task "not so easy” in such a congested environment like these camps, which house more than 1.2 million persecuted people and genocide survivors, he added that they would begin testing only after getting funds.

The treatment cost of the disease is also high. So it is really a very challenging job, he remarked.

"We are hopeful that, in collaboration with international aid agencies and donors, we will be able to begin treatment for infected Rohingya soon and take precautions to prevent the spread of the germs," Bhuiyan said.

Referring to the shrinking funds for Rohingya during the current global crises, particularly the war between Russia and Ukraine, he urged world leaders not to ignore the Rohingya plight in any situation.