Integrated Regional Information Networks - February 9, 2012
BANGKOK, 9 February 2012 (IRIN) - The health of millions of
indigenous people across Asia is at risk, experts say, as lack of
recognition of their legal status hinders data collection, making
their medical problems invisible in most national health surveys.
Indigenous peoples - defined by the UN as people with ancestral
ties to a geographical region who retain "distinct
characteristics" from other parts of the population - rank
disproportionately high in most indicators of poor health,
according to the UN Secretariat Department of Economic and Social
"It is very regrettable that governments and their offices are
reluctant to, or unable to, reveal the state of health of their
indigenous populations," Michael Gracey, co-author of a 2009
medical study on indigenous health, told IRIN.
Approximately two-thirds of the world's estimated 300 million
indigenous people live in Asia (207 million), according to 2011
estimates by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).
Lack of education, geographic isolation and prejudice marginalize
Asia's indigenous populations, boosting their risk for
preventable sexually transmitted infections (STIs), according to
the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
More than 40 percent of hill tribe women and girls in Thailand
who migrate to cities for work end up in the sex industry,
according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development
In the Greater Mekong region, home to 95 ethnic groups in
Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, health education
is often not conducted in native languages, said David Feingold,
coordinator for the Bangkok-based Trafficking and HIV/AIDS
Project at the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural
"No information guarantees bad choices, so it's not surprising
that the Greater Mekong minorities are disproportionately
represented amongst HIV-positive populations."
In part because of poor hygiene conditions in Vietnam's northern
Ha Giang Province, gynaecological infections remain a persistent
problem for women from the Hmong, Dao, Tay, and Nung groups who
live in Hoang Su Phi District, according to the Thailand-based
NGO, Asia Indigenous People's Pact (AIPP).
Only 24 percent of households in the district have potable water
and almost no households have latrines or toilets, reported AIPP.
"Even if there are health services available, they are of poor
quality," said Shimreichon Luithi Erni, the coordinator for
women's issues at AIPP.
Stateless and sick
Statelessness worsens the chances an indigenous person can afford
healthcare, according to UNESCO. Almost four out of 10 hill tribe
people in Thailand are not citizens and are, therefore,
ineligible for national healthcare and formal employment, said
In addition, resettlement increases health vulnerabilities,
according to the UK-based indigenous rights NGO, Survival
"To tribal peoples, the connection to their land is so
fundamental and central to their wellbeing that removal from it
is almost inevitably devastating, nutritionally, psychologically
and physiologically," said Sophie Grig, Survival's senior
But without more health data, it is hard to know which problems
to tackle. "There is insufficient disaggregation of data on
indigenous people's health that could be used to advocate for
specific interventions targeting their needs," said Anne Harmer,
UNFPA's socio-cultural technical adviser for Asia.