Bangladeshi sex workers are risking their lives by taking steroid drugs commonly used to fatten cattle to give them an older, plumper appearance, Agence France-Presse reported Wednesday.
"It's the quickest way to make a girl plump and hide her actual age if she is just a teenager," said Bangladeshi brothel owner Rokeya, 50, adding that the drug, called Oradexon, is cheap and widely available.
An estimated 200,000 women and teenage girls work in Bangladesh's sex industry and as many as 90 percent of them may be addicted to Oradexon or similar steroids, according to ActionAid, an international anti-poverty agency.
Doctors say long-term use can be fatal but at the vast, government-registered brothel 60 miles outside Dhaka, most of the 900 sex workers use Oradexon daily to give them plump, full bodies.
When sex worker Shahinur Begum first arrived at Faridpur, divorced and bankrupt with a daughter to support, she worried about being too thin to attract clients.
"Oradexon gave me a full body, making me attractive," she said, adding that her brothel madam first gave her the drug to help her gain weight but she was soon hooked on it.
The drug is so common it is sold in tea-shops in the brothel, with a pack of 10 costing just a few cents — less than the price of a cup of tea.
The steroid is used to fatten cattle ahead of the Muslim festival of Eid, when millions of animals are slaughtered, and also to treat humans for arthritis, thyroid, intestinal problems and allergies.
But it has serious side effects if taken incorrectly.
"It is very, very dangerous if you use it for more than two to three months. Most sex workers at Faridpur have been using the drug for years, and now many are paying the price," said government doctor Kamal Uddin Ahmed.
Ahmed, who has treated many sex workers at Faridpur general hospital where he is based, said the steroid use is linked to heart disease, obesity, kidney failure and osteoporosis.
Giving it up is difficult as the withdrawal symptoms include headaches and skin rashes.
Although Bangladesh technically bars the sale of steroids without a doctor's prescription, in practice this is rarely enforced.