When Dr. Iftikher Mahmood set out to help Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, skin health was not the first thing on his mind.
HOPE for Women and Children of Bangladesh, Mahmood’s organization, primarily offers maternal and emergency health services to people in Bangladesh – including the Rohingya, hundreds of thousands of whom fled violence in Myanmar and settled in camps in Cox’s Bazar. From birthing babies to treating wounds, HOPE has continued to provide ongoing health services around the clock during the Covid-19 pandemic, and has even created a dedicated facility for Covid-19 patients.
But Direct Relief, a longtime partner of HOPE’s, was already working with the company Vaseline to heal skin at dedicated camps around the world. The organization reached out to Mahmood in 2019 to ask if it could provide dermatological support to the Rohingya.
“That was when we noticed that it was a huge problem, that so many people are suffering with skin conditions,” Mahmood recalled.
He wasn’t exactly surprised to discover it. Crowded, unhygienic conditions, along with limited access to showers and baths, lead to fungal infections and the rapid spread of scabies, he explained. Scabies in particular “becomes highly contagious when too many people live in the same area.”
Mahmood hired a dermatologist, Dr. Eliza Parvin, who comes weekly to the camps to care for patients. HOPE’s primary care physicians also work to treat skin conditions, whether in their hospital facility or during the weekly clinic. Any patient who shows up receives free care and medicine.
“It’s a very popular program with us,” Mahmood said of the clinic. He explained that although skin conditions are rarely life-threatening, “it is a chronic problem and people are every day suffering from it.”
The clinic generally sees more than 100 patients each week, and sometimes that number is closer to 150. More than 12,000 people have received care thus far.
Through the Vaseline Healing Project, Direct Relief has provided $81,000 in funding to the skin clinic, along with a range of material support.
Parvin, the dermatologist, said that while close contact and difficult conditions do a great deal to contribute to skin problems, teaching patients how to properly care for their skin – such as handwashing frequently – can make a significant difference.
However, a lack of education is a significant roadblock. “Usually their education is very poor, and they do not maintain their hygiene process,” she said. “The same patients sometimes come every week. It’s very difficult to treat or explain to them.”
Despite the challenges, the work is rewarding. “I feel great to serve refugees because they are…suffering from many skin diseases,” Parvin said.
Part of the process is teaching patients to prioritize their skin, which can often be neglected, Mahmood said. Patients are encouraged to see a provider right away when they notice something is wrong.
“You can proactively manage that [condition] better when you see them early,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Vaseline, which prevents skin from cracking and keeps infection and rashes at bay, is a popular product among clinic patients, Mahmood said: “It keeps the skin’s integrity, even in the rainy season.”