PUBLICATION: An assessment of vulnerability to HIV infection of boatmen in Teknaf, Bangladesh. Confl Health 2: 5.

Aurthors: Gazi, R., A. Mercer, T. Wansom, H. Kabir, N. C. Saha and T. Azim (2008)
Publication Category: Health and HIV in Lake Victoria Fishing Communities

Mobile population groups are at high risk for contracting HIV infection. Many factors contribute to this risk including high prevalence of risky behavior and increased risk of violence due to conflict and war. The Naf River serves as the primary border crossing point between Teknaf, Bangladesh and Mynamar [Burma] for both official and unofficial travel of people and goods. Little is known about the risk behavior of boatmen who travel back and forth between Teknaf and Myanmar. However, we hypothesize that boatmen may act as a bridging population for HIV/AIDS between the high-prevalence country of Myanmar and the low-prevalence country of Bangladesh.

METHODS: Methods included initial rapport building with community members, mapping of boatmen communities, and in-depth qualitative interviews with key informants and members from other vulnerable groups such as spouses of boatmen, commercial female sex workers, and injecting drug users. Information from the first three stages was used to create a cross-sectional survey that was administered to 433 boatmen.

RESULTS: Over 40% of the boatmen had visited Myanmar during the course of their work. 17% of these boatmen had sex with CSW while abroad. There was a significant correlation found between the number of nights spent in Myanmar and sex with commercial sex workers.In the past year, 19% of all boatmen surveyed had sex with another man. 14% of boatmen had participated in group sex, with groups ranging in size from three to fourteen people. Condom use was rare {0 to 4.7% during the last month}, irrespective of types of sex partners.

Regression analysis showed that boatmen who were 25 years and older were statistically less likely to have sexual intercourse with non- marital female partners in the last year compared to the boatmen aged less than 25 years. Similarly deep-sea fishing boatmen and non-fishing boatmen were statistically less likely to have sexual intercourse with non- marital female partners in the last year compared to the day long fishing boatmen adjusting for all other variables. Boatmen's knowledge regarding HIV transmission and personal risk perception for contracting HIV was low.

CONCLUSION: Boatmen in Teknaf are an integral part of a high-risk sexual behaviour network between Myanmar and Bangladesh. They are at risk of obtaining HIV infection due to cross border mobility and unsafe sexual practices. There is an urgent need for designing interventions targeting boatmen in Teknaf to combat an impending epidemic of HIV among this group. They could be included in the serological surveillance as a vulnerable group. Interventions need to address issues on both sides of the border, other vulnerable groups, and refugees. Strong political will and cross border collaboration is mandatory for such interventions.

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