People with HIV in Bangladesh too scared to seek treatment
The church is helping with access to treatment despite an oppressive atmosphere
A Bangladeshi social worker wears a red ribbon as she takes part in a gathering to mark World AIDS Day in Dhaka in this file photo. (Photo by AFP)
Bangladesh recorded its first case of HIV in 1989 and up until now it has been considered a low prevalence country. But even so, in this socially and religiously conservative Muslim-majority nation, people living with HIV are vulnerable to being ostracized.
Bangladesh's Ministry of Health estimates there are 3,664 people living with HIV/AIDS but the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS estimates the number to be about 9,500, out of a population of 160 million.
The government provides free HIV testing facilities and anti-retroviral drugs (ARV) for HIV/AIDS treatment but, fearing social discrimination, many patients hide their condition and don't opt to get it.
Caritas in collaboration with the Catholic bishops’ health commission helps about 40 Christians living with HIV.
Their services include two collections for the patients before Easter and Christmas and providing money, clothes and daily essentials including rice and lentils.
Edward Pallab Rozario, secretary of the health commission said besides providing financial, spiritual and psychological support, they also help patients access free government testing and medication.
"Most patients don't know where and how they can access ARV drugs. So, we work with them to link them up with government and non-government agencies that provide free medications. Sometimes, people even don't know that HIV/AIDS can be treated," Rozario said.
"Often people in the society don’t consider HIV/AIDS as a disease but a curse, summarily relating it to sexual lasciviousness. Once people know that someone has HIV, that person won't have a good social life and no job, so people with the disease think they need to hide it," Rozario said.
Rozario, who is a medical doctor, said that the government introduced a chapter on HIV/AIDS awareness in high school textbooks in order to spread awareness and diminish social stigma, but it has failed so far.
"Parents of the students don't feel it's good for children to know about HIV/AIDS as it includes lessons on sexual behavior and they think their children would be harmed if they learned about sexuality. So, the schools just skip those chapters. This was a great initiative but it didn't work out," he said.
The new trend: migrant workers
In 1989, Joseph (not his real name), a Catholic near Dhaka joined a group of young men to find work in India and landed in Mumbai where he worked as a hotel cook.
From time to time he frequented Mumbai's red light districts, and often had unprotected sex which he says is how he probably contracted HIV. About two years later, he came back home and got married.
To find better prospects, he moved to Oman in 1992 and a medical test there confirmed that he was living with HIV. His employer sent him back home. By then he had already passed the disease to his wife, who died of the illness in 2002.
After returning from Oman, Joseph went back to Mumbai for work and only returned home permanently after he fell seriously ill in 2000.
Joseph's wife and family members knew he was HIV-positive, but they decided not to disclose it to their relatives and other people in their community.
"We knew that if people were aware we would face social humiliation — they would start looking down upon us. So, we decided to keep it a secret and carry on a normal life," Joseph said.
"I haven't faced any humiliation so far because people don't know I have the disease," he added.
In 2000, after returning home from Mumbai, Joseph came to know about the church's HIV programs and got in touch with those involved.
Joseph needs to take medicines every day and he collects them from a hospital run by a nongovernmental agency twice a year.
"Thanks to the support from the church group, I am still alive and I can make my living from working in agricultural. They have given me strength to fight the disease and let me know where and how I can get treatment. I am grateful to them," he added.
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