Contested Illness in Bangladesh Society

Published at : 09 July 2024, 07:22 pm
Contested Illness in Bangladesh Society
Dr Matiur Rahman

Contested illnesses are a global phenomenon, but their impact and recognition can vary widely depending on cultural, social, and political contexts. In Bangladesh, the interplay of traditional beliefs, socioeconomic factors, and evolving medical landscapes creates a unique environment for the manifestation and acknowledgement of contested illnesses. 

Bangladesh, a densely populated country with a rich cultural heritage, has an evolving healthcare system amid numerous challenges. Traditional healing practices coexist with modern medical advancements, often leading to a complex and sometimes conflicting healthcare environment. 

Contested illnesses and medical conditions that lack clear biomedical markers and are subject to significant debate over their legitimacy, causation, and treatment face unique hurdles in such a context.

One of the primary challenges in recognising and addressing contested illnesses in Bangladesh is the prevalence of traditional beliefs and practices. Many people in rural areas and even urban settings rely heavily on traditional healers, known as "kabiraj" or "hakim," for their healthcare needs. These practitioners use herbal remedies, spiritual healing, and other conventional methods to treat illnesses. 

While these practices hold cultural significance and provide a sense of comfort to many, they can also lead to delays in seeking biomedical treatments and contribute to the stigmatisation of illnesses that do not fit traditional understandings of disease.

Socioeconomic factors are critical in recognising and treating contested illnesses in Bangladesh. Poverty, limited access to healthcare, and lack of education about health issues contribute to the marginalisation of individuals with contested illnesses. 

For instance, conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and multiple chemical sensitivity, which are often misunderstood and underdiagnosed globally, face even more significant challenges in Bangladesh. Patients suffering from these illnesses may not have the financial means to seek specialised medical care or the resources to advocate for themselves within the healthcare system.

The healthcare infrastructure in Bangladesh is another significant factor influencing the recognition of contested illnesses. While there have been improvements in healthcare services, especially in urban areas, the system still struggles with inadequate resources, a lack of specialised healthcare providers, and insufficient training on diagnosing and managing complex, poorly understood conditions. 

As a result, patients with contested illnesses often find themselves navigating an ill-equipped healthcare system to address their needs. This can lead to misdiagnosis, inadequate treatment, and further marginalisation.

Mental health is another critical aspect of the contested illness landscape in Bangladesh. Conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are increasingly recognised as significant health issues, yet they remain stigmatised and underdiagnosed. 

The stigma associated with mental health disorders is deeply rooted in cultural beliefs and societal attitudes, making it difficult for individuals to seek help and receive appropriate care. The lack of trained mental health professionals and the limited availability of mental health services further complicate the recognition and treatment of mental health-related contested illnesses.

Environmental factors also contribute to the prevalence and recognition of contested illnesses in Bangladesh. The country faces significant environmental challenges, including pollution, exposure to hazardous chemicals, and poor sanitation. 

These environmental issues can lead to various health problems, some of which may be classified as contested illnesses due to their complex and often poorly understood nature. For example, diseases related to air and water pollution, such as respiratory conditions and skin disorders, may be contested regarding their causation and appropriate treatment.

The role of the media in shaping public perception and awareness of contested illnesses cannot be overlooked. Media coverage can influence societal attitudes, policy decisions, and the allocation of resources for healthcare. In Bangladesh, media plays a crucial role in raising awareness about health issues, but it can also perpetuate misconceptions and stigma. 

Sensationalised or inaccurate reporting on contested illnesses can lead to further misunderstanding and marginalisation of individuals suffering from these conditions. Conversely, responsible and informed media coverage can help educate the public, reduce stigma, and advocate for better healthcare policies and practices.

Advocacy and support groups are essential for individuals with contested illnesses. They provide a platform for sharing experiences, raising awareness, and advocating for better healthcare. In Bangladesh, the establishment and growth of such groups face numerous challenges, including limited resources, social stigma, and lack of recognition from healthcare institutions and policymakers. 

Despite these challenges, grassroots efforts and community-based organisations are emerging as essential advocates for those with contested illnesses, striving to improve their quality of life and access to care.

The intersection of gender and contested illness in Bangladesh also warrants attention. Women, in particular, may face unique challenges in having their illnesses recognised and treated. Gender biases within the healthcare system, combined with cultural expectations and norms, can lead to the dismissal or trivialisation of women's health concerns. 

Conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic pelvic pain, and certain autoimmune disorders, which disproportionately affect women, are often underdiagnosed and undertreated. Addressing these gender disparities requires a concerted effort to educate healthcare providers, challenge cultural norms, and advocate for gender-sensitive healthcare policies.

There are opportunities for progress in the face of these multifaceted challenges. Integrating traditional and modern medical practices in a way that respects cultural beliefs while promoting evidence-based healthcare can help bridge the gap between different healthcare approaches. Training healthcare providers to recognise and manage contested illnesses, improving access to specialised care, and incorporating mental health services into primary healthcare are critical steps towards better healthcare for individuals with contested illnesses.

Policy initiatives at the national and local levels are also essential for addressing contested illnesses in Bangladesh. Developing comprehensive healthcare policies that prioritise, recognise, research, and treat contested diseases can help ensure that individuals suffering from these conditions receive the care and support they need. 

This includes allocating resources for research into the causes and treatments of contested illnesses, establishing guidelines for diagnosis and management, and ensuring that healthcare providers are adequately trained to recognise and treat these conditions.

International collaboration and knowledge exchange can also be crucial in addressing contested illnesses in Bangladesh. Bangladesh can benefit from the latest research, best practices, and innovative approaches to managing contested illnesses by partnering with global health organisations, research institutions, and advocacy groups. Such collaborations can also help raise awareness and reduce stigma, promoting a more inclusive and supportive environment for individuals with contested illnesses.

The issue of contested illnesses in Bangladesh is a complex and multifaceted challenge that requires a holistic and inclusive approach. By recognising the interplay of traditional beliefs, socioeconomic factors, healthcare infrastructure, mental health, environmental influences, media, advocacy, and gender, we can develop more effective strategies for addressing these conditions. 

Through collaboration, education, and policy initiatives, we can work towards a future where contested illnesses are recognised, understood, and treated with the compassion and care they deserve. This will improve the lives of individuals suffering from these conditions and contribute to Bangladesh's healthier and more equitable society.


*The author is a Research Consultant at the Human Development Research Centre (HDRC). E-Mail: [email protected]*