Rohingya in a street market in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: AFP / Diego Cupolo / NurPhoto

Bangladesh on Tuesday started vaccinating Rohingya refugees living in congested camps as the impoverished South Asian nation battles a record surge in coronavirus cases, officials said.

Health officials say 2,600 Covid-19 cases and 29 deaths have been recorded in the camps housing about 850,000 Rohingya, but many experts say this is likely a gross underestimate.

The initial inoculation phase will see about 48,000 refugees aged over 55 get Chinese-made Sinopharm shots in the coming three days, said local health chief Mahbubur Rahman.

Officials said they have carried a “massive vaccination awareness campaign” in the camps with volunteers going door to door to inform the refugees about the importance of getting jabbed.

Shams ud Douza, Bangladesh’s deputy refugee commissioner, said a vaccination drive would also begin this week for the 18,000 Rohingya controversially relocated to an island in the Bay of Bengal.

Bangladesh has been hit by a major surge in cases in recent months and much of the country of 169 million people is under lockdown, including the Rohingya camps.

The coronavirus has killed nearly 23,000 people and infected some 1.4 million in Bangladesh, most of them in recent months. Some 98% of new infections are from the more transmissible Delta variant first detected in neighboring India.

“Vaccination of all age groups is the only effective way to stop the virus (from) spreading further among the Rohingya population in the camps,” said Romain Briey, head of the medical charity MSF in Bangladesh.

Most of the Rohingya in Bangladesh fled an offensive by security forces in neighboring Myanmar in 2017 and four years later, there remains little prospect of them returning home.

Hrusikesh Harichandan from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said the Rohingya were “living in the shadow of the global vaccine divide.”

“Vaccinations are vital for families to live with dignity because staying home is so tough for people in these cramped camps and most still have limited access to water and sanitation facilities, escalating risks from Covid-19.”