Dechen Tshomo

With 24 new HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) positive cases, including 15 male detected from June to November this year, a total of 60 cases have been diagnosed so far this year.

The majority (58 percent) of the reported cases are aged between 25 and 49 years, 38 percent aged above 50 years, and four percent between 20 and 24 years.

In terms of occupation of the newly reported cases, 12 are farmers, three businessmen, and two each are housewives, drivers and corporate employees. It also includes one each from uniformed personnel, religious body, and school.

About 23 of them acquired the infection through unprotected heterosexual intercourse and one from unnatural sex.

According to a press release from the health ministry, medical screening remained the highest mode of case diagnosis with 54 percent. This followed by voluntary and counselling testing with 21 percent, contact tracing 17 percent and four percent each through antenatal checkup and mobile testing.

“Currently, all the new cases are being put on care and treatment at the JDWNRH,” it states.   

Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said that good progress was made in case diagnosis and treatment coverage among the people living with HIV (PLHIV) in the last two decades. “Our universal access to HIV testing services and treat all policy has benefited the PLHIV to lead a quality life.”

However, Lyonpo said there was still a need to do more to bridge the current case detection gap of 45 percent through innovative HIV testing methods like community lead and self-testing. “Scaling up access to HIV testing is critical to ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030, offering everyone the right to know their HIV status through high-quality national HIV testing programmes that respect every individual’s dignity and human rights are important.”

Officiating director with the Department of Public Health, Rixin Jamtsho said the social and self-stigma continues to be the barrier for accessing the testing and counselling service which was one of the major challenges for the programme.

However, he said the programme was working towards aggressive contact tracing to encourage voluntary partner notification to enhance timely case diagnosis.

The health ministry is working on enhancing the accessibility of the service for testing and counselling by mapping all the local hotspots in the major urban areas. Local festivals in the country will also be used to carry forward the mass awareness and testing for the key and vulnerable communities.

While the HIV cases in the country are increasing over the period, there is still a case detection gap of 45 percent as of yesterday.  This means only 55 percent of the estimated 1,265 PLHIV in Bhutan know their HIV positive status.

Since 1993, a total of 667 HIV positive cases (328 female) have been diagnosed until November this year, with the majority (70 percent) in the age group between 25 and 49 years.

This shows that HIV in Bhutan has primarily affected the most economically productive age group.

In terms of mode of transmission, 93 percent of them have acquired the infection through heterosexual route, 5.5 percent from mother to child transmission, 0.15 percent from anal sex and 0.44 percent each through injecting drug use and blood transfusion abroad.

Although Bhutan claims to have low and diffused HIV epidemic, of late, the evidence shows the likelihood of experiencing a concentrated epidemic.

However, it needs to be revalidated to further understand the source of infection to develop the most appropriate interventions.

Health officials said the prevention of HIV was a shared responsibility of all individuals irrespective of their HIV status which ideally requires a concerted effort in minimising the stigma and discrimination at all levels.

HIV, if detected early can be suppressed and the person can live longer through healthily living style and medication.

Certain body fluids like blood, semen, vaginal or anal secretions and breast milk from a person who has HIV can transmit HIV.

These fluids must come in contact with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue or be directly injected into the bloodstream from a needle or syringe for transmission to occur.

Abstaining from unprotected sex, being faithful to one’s partner, the right use of condom and not abusing drugs are some of the ways to prevent transmission of the virus.

The World AIDS Day this year will be observed in Samtse on December 1 with the global theme, ‘Communities make the difference’.

The health ministry will also organise a mobile National HIV Testing Week in Metekha, Dungna, Lokchina and parts of Phuentsholing in Chhukha from November 30 to December 8 with the national theme, ‘Engaging communities to bridge the case detection gap’.