DHAKA/JESSORE, April 21 - Samira Mallick (name changed), a survivor of cross-border sex trafficking, was tested positive for HIV after being rescued from a brothel in India. Months after being repatriated to Bangladesh, Samira suddenly goes off the radar of the HIV-targeted intervention programme.
Those privy to the HIV status of Samira got the shock of their lives when they found that the latter had gone on to marry on the sly in a remote hamlet located in the southwestern region of Bangladesh without confiding in her partner about her HIV status, perhaps owing to the fear of being judged, discriminated or rejected.
What is even more shocking is that the case of Samira is not an aberration among survivors of sex trafficking in Bangladesh. And in each case, the survivor had reportedly opted out of the anti-retroviral treatment for HIV, compounding the chances of their partners getting infected (due to detectable viral load).
Non-adherence to the counselling module prescribed by the World Health Organization (WHO), experts believe, has now pushed several sero-discordant couples (one of the two carrying infection) to the brink of a catastrophic situation.
On the hindsight though, it is a catch-22 situation for the targeted intervention NGOs, who believe that there ceases to exist a standard operating procedure to deal with such unique cases.
During an extensive research and fact-finding initiative, The Assam Tribune has come across cases where many families are staring at such catastrophic fallout unaware of the HIV status of the newly-wed, who once was a survivor of the flourishing sex trafficking chain involving India and Bangladesh.
�The guilty conscience comes back to haunt me every now and then but I had no choice,� Samira says.
Khurshida Khanon, a professional counsellor of Rights Jessore, which had facilitated her repatriation, said that Samira does not want her status to be disclosed to her partner because she thinks she is doing quite well.
The HIV/AIDS counselling was provided to Samira by another NGO based in Jessore (Bangladesh) after being repatriated.
The case of Noori Begum (name changed) of Cox�s Bazar is no different either. Noori, who was tested HIV positive during a routine medical examination conducted on girls in Mumbai after being rescued, was pressurized by her parents not to disclose her infection to anyone.
For a secured future, marriage was an obvious choice for Noori, who was trafficked to India on a false promise of better life, an activist of Cox�s Bazar-based NGO YPSA told this correspondent.
Noori now does not want to speak to anybody, who is aware of her HIV status. �She is still not willing to accept what has happened to her,� said a health worker, requesting anonymity.
In both the cases, the health parameters of the victims are reportedly deteriorating.
Unlike Samira and Noori, 17-year-old Shehnaz (name changed) could not resist the stigma that she had to endure after testing positive. Barely months after she was rescued from the clutches of sex traffickers in India and repatriated back home, she was retrafficked to India.
Her whereabouts in India is not yet known, which is even more alarming form the perspective of India. �She now has a baby boy who, however, is HIV negative,� informed a human rights activist of Cox�s Bazar.
Jahnabi Goswami, an HIV/AIDS activist from Assam, told The Assam Tribune that such incidents clearly reflect that the �test and treat� policy has not been adhered to and many a time it is seen that the approved counselling method is not employed in its entirety.
�The WHO stresses on continuous counselling, which unfortunately does not take place, resulting in loss of follow-up, which is why such extreme cases of HIV-infected people getting married without taking their partners into confidence take place,� she said.
�During counselling, it is very important to see whether the victim is mentally and physically ready to take treatment after getting tested positive. Apart from creating awareness, it is also equally important to inform the victims that non-disclosure of their status to the sexual partner could invite prosecution,� Goswami said.
�Since they are keeping their infection secret and not availing regular treatment, the chances of their partner getting infected are extremely high. The responsible authorities must take a call on this,� she pointed out.
According to the survey conducted by the National AIDS/STD Programme of the Health and Welfare Ministry of Bangladesh, a total of 6,455 HIV-infected people have been identified in Bangladesh till 2018, of which 1,022 people have died of the disease. The first HIV-infected patient in Bangladesh was identified in 1989, as per a report.
Last year, about 869 people affected by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) were identified in Bangladesh.