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Catholics not immune from HIV threat

About 1.5 percent live with HIV, despite gradual decline in cases countrywide reporter, Dhaka

November 23, 2012

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The Catholic minority in the country remains at substantial risk from HIV/AIDS despite a UNAIDS report that suggests a gradual decline in total cases.

“Catholics number about 350,000 in the country, but we have information that 1.5 percent of them are HIV/AIDS patients,” said Dr. Edward Pallab Rozario, secretary of the Healthcare Commission at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh.

Rozario spoke on the sidelines of a three-day HIV/AIDS workshop in Dhaka organized by Caritas that ended yesterday.

Official data last year put the total number of cases in the country at 2,500, though unofficially the number is thought to be closer to 7,000 patients.

As in other communities, Catholics hesitate to disclose that they are HIV-positive or seek testing or treatment, largely because of the stigma attached to the illness, said Rozario, who also coordinates HIV projects for Caritas Bangladesh.

Bela Rozario (not her real name), a 37-year-old widow and mother of three, said HIV has brought misery and suffering to her family.

“My husband used to work in Mumbai, India, and died of AIDS four years ago. I and my younger daughter are HIV-positive. I believe it came from my husband. My in-laws treat me as a bad woman and don’t allow me into their homes,” said the widow, who works with Caritas.

The program drew 40 participants, mostly health workers including priests and nuns who work in areas of the country considered at high risk for HIV.

Dr. Rozario cited cultural obstacles to treatment and educating young people about how to protect against infection.

“AIDS is related to sexuality, which is taboo in Bangladesh. We have instructed our health workers to identify those in need and help them get treatment.”

Sister Chandra Rebeiro of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions who works among migrant workers in Gazipur, an industrial zone near Dhaka, said many workers are away from their families for long stretches of time and engage in risky sexual behavior.

“I make them aware about HIV/AIDS infection and inform them about where they can receive treatment,” she said.

UNAIDS estimates that about 12,000 people in the country live with HIV. About 50 percent of those are migrant workers.

While there are about 100 local and international NGOs that work on HIV/AIDs issues, most of these only offer awareness programs because treatment is too expensive for most Bangladeshis.

Akter Jahan, an official with the State Health Department’s National HIV/AIDS Program, said that next month eight hospitals across the country would start offering anti-retroviral treatment (ART).

Asma Parvin, deputy director of Ashar Alo (Light of Hope), which is one of the few organizations that does provide treatment, said about 70 percent of people with HIV cannot afford treatment.

ART costs between 4,200 taka and 50,000 taka (US$51 to $610) per treatment.

Last year 325 deaths were attributed to AIDS-related illness, up from 241 in 2010, according to government data.

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