Health minister urges people to test to know their HIV status 

Younten Tshedup 

Heterosexual act or sexual intercourse with an opposite sex is the common mode of transmission among the 34 new Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) cases detected in the last six months.

The victims of the virus include a mother to a child transmission (MTCT) with 15 male and 19 female among the infected. Of the total new cases 23 (68 percent) of them are between the ages of 25-49 while nine (26 percent) of them are above 50 years.

Among the new cases, majority (13) are farmers and eight are housewives. All the new cases have been put on care and treatment at the national referral hospital.

Health officials said that although there is a sign of stabilisation of HIV epidemic in the country, with an average case detection of 55 cases for six years, there is a detection gap of 45 percent as of June this year.

 This shows that only 55 percent of the estimated 1,300 people living with HIV in the country know their HIV status. The remaining 579 people living with HIV are still unaware of their HIV status.

Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said that one of the biggest challenges in responding towards the prevention and control of HIV is that people do not come forward for testing despite making testing services available in all the health centers across the country.

The services are also made available in the private diagnostic clinics and at the standalone Health Information and Service Center (HISC).

“It is the individual responsibility to know one’s HIV status to keep yourself and your sexual partners healthy.” Lyonpo said. “If diagnosed you will have a better chance of living a long and healthy life through quality treatment.”

The minister said that if a person tests positive for the virus, treatment could start early. “With treatment, the probability of transmitting the virus to your sexual partner is very minimum. But if you are not aware of your HIV status there is a possibility of spreading the virus to others including your own child.”

On the MTCT, the minister said, “Personally, a mother to child transmission is very unfortunate. Unnecessarily you give the virus to your child, how sad is that?”

The minister urged all those visiting hospitals for other illnesses to test for HIV. All tests are kept highly confidential, she added.

Director with the Department of Public Health, Dr Karma Lhazeen said that the ministry is also looking forward to introducing community lead testing to reach the unreached high-risk populations as a pilot project.

She said that such innovative measures are needed with changing times to encourage more people to get tested on time. “HIV partner notification or contact tracing is one of the most effective methods to identify those undiagnosed people who may have been exposed through positive partners.”

The director also urged all the newly diagnosed HIV positive individuals to extend full support in identifying their sexual contacts or injecting drug use partners for timely diagnosis and treatment.

Meanwhile, the total cumulative HIV cases reported from 1993 until June this year stands at 721 (374 male and 347 female).

Like many other countries in the region, the majority (70 percent) of the reported HIV cases in Bhutan is between the ages of 25-49 years while 15 percent are between the ages of 15-24 years.

This shows that HIV in Bhutan primarily affects the economically productive age group.

Officials said that of those infected about 93.8 percent of them have acquired the infection through the heterosexual route, while 5.4 percent were from mother to child transmission, 0.4 percent each from injecting drug and blood transfusion (outside Bhutan).

Officials added that one of the aspects of HIV prevention and control is to reduce stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV.

In the early 1980s when AIDS was first diagnosed there was very little known about how HIV is transmitted, and all the HIV/AIDS awareness are always associated with death, said an official.

“The situation worsened when there was no appropriate treatment during the initial stage of the epidemic. At present, as a result of more scientific evidence the high-quality antiretroviral treatment has been introduced to help HIV positive people.”

Timely testing is the only means to know one’s HIV status to initiate early treatment to prevent one from getting into the AIDS stage, officials added.