Autism as a public health concern has recently garnered some attention. But it is far from enough. A study of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University shows that at least 17 in every 10,000 children in Bangladesh are born with autism. The door-to-door study revealed that in urban areas, the prevalence of autism is 25 per 10,000 children compared with 14 per 10,000 children in rural areas. In every 10,000 boys, 24 were found to be autistic, compared with 9.8 girls. Another earlier study by the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research Bangladesh revealed that more than 1.4 million people are autistic in Bangladesh. While the autism prevalence rate here is lower than other developed and developing countries, it is still an evolving public health concern that warrants government attention. If unaddressed, the public health burden of autism could become socially and economically costly.
Physicians attending the launch of the report underscored an immediate need to identify the root cause of the increased prevalence of autism for relevant stakeholders to design and draft policies to prevent autism. It is important note that care for autistic children is absent in Bangladesh. At a workshop that the ICDDRB and the Fate Bangladesh organised in February, paediatricians and social workers emphasised the importance of institutional support for autistic children as one in every 500 children suffers from autistic spectrum disorder. In the absence of any public sector support system for special children, much of the burden is borne by parents and informal care givers. To address the growing burden of autism spectrum disorder, the health ministry in collaboration with the social welfare department must develop a child care support system for children with autism. Public health activists have also talked about social misperception around autism. Drawing from their experience with children with autism, they found that autism is socially often equated with mental illness, thereby stigmatising people with autism and their family. In reality, people with autism are differently-abled. Therefore, there is an urgent need to demystify the prevailing misconception through awareness campaigns. On World Autism Day 2018, autism experts and disability rights advocacy groups asked for an immediate survey to determine the actual number of physically challenged people in the country as it would help the government to better understand the need and demands of the community and make policy changes accordingly.
All relevant stakeholders, therefore, must immediately initiate an epidemiological study to determine prevalence rate as well as the root causes of rising cases of autism in Bangladesh. To address the growing burden of autism spectrum disorder, the health ministry in collaboration with the social welfare department must develop a child care support system for children with autism. In addition, the government must organise public campaigns to destigmise the population with autism.
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