[Documents menu] Documents menu

HIV Risk High Among Refugees in Myanmar, Thailand

By Meg Bryant, Reuters, Thursday 7 December 2000, 5:24 PM ET

WASHINGTON (Reuters Health) - A survey of migrant workers living along the Thai/Myanmar (formerly Burma) border reveals major differences between that group and the much better publicized and better serviced refugee population that is officially recognized in border camps, according to Johns Hopkins University's Dr. Luke Mullany.

About 1.2 million Burmese migrants live just inside the Thai border, the vast majority of whom fled the oppressive military regime that is based in Rangoon, Mullany told a conference here on reproductive health of refugees and displaced populations. However, because the Thai government recognizes these people as illegal economic migrants rather than refugees, they are not entitled to any social services, he said.

As a result, virtually zero access has been extended to (international relief workers) trying to document health status or education in migrant worker factories, Mullany stated.

In the survey, 233 men and 492 women were asked a variety of questions concerning prevention and transmission of the AIDS (news - web sites) virus. The responses showed significant gender differences, with men consistently scoring higher than women in terms of basic knowledge about the disease, according to Mullany.

With regard to prevention, only 15% of women said they had ever seen a condom, and less than half of the women understood that birth control pills do not prevent infection. Fewer than 2% of the women reported using a condom at least once, as compared with nearly 13% of the men.

The survey also exposed serious gaps in the workers' awareness of HIV that could put them at greater risk of infection. For example, 82% could identify the major risk factors for contracting HIV, but only 27% knew that they could learn their own HIV status with a blood test.

Mullany called the refugee-run survey an important first step in drawing attention to the plight of migrant workers, not only within the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but to their lack of (healthcare) services overall.

Another survey, by the refugee-run Reproductive Health Group in Guinea, found similar misconceptions and cultural limitations among 976 men and women living in camps in Guinea's Forest Region.

While roughly 90% knew of HIV and AIDS and that avoiding multiple sexual partners and shared needles helped to prevent transmission, 54% believed that mosquitoes can spread the virus. A lesser--but still significant--number thought they could get HIV by touching (26%) or sharing food (30%) with people who are HIV-positive, according to Meriwether Beatty of the JSI Research and Training Institute. Twenty-two percent of interviewees said that eating good food will protect against HIV/AIDS.

All of the Guinean refugees had access to free healthcare within the refugee camps, about three fourths of those who reported having had sexually transmitted disease symptoms sought help at one of the health facilities.

However, 82% also said they went to private pharmacies to purchase STD medications, pointing out the lack of necessary drugs at the camp-based clinics, Beatty said.