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The warning is stern. If we do not bridge the detection gap soon, there is the risk of HIV becoming an epidemic in the country. 

We have on an average tested one HIV case every week this year. Still, the detection gap is 43 percent. According to the UNAIDS estimate, the country has around 1,300 positive cases. In other words, there are about 600 people in the country today who are unaware of their HIV status, risking transmission of the infection.

The HIV Self-Testing (HIVST) initiative is a masterstroke. Given the secrecy and stigma surrounding the disease, it could help people test themselves at their convenience and comfort of their homes. The faster we roll out the kits, the quicker we will bridge the gap.

As we observed World AIDS Day yesterday, many living a normal life with HIV shared their stories. There was one common message: AIDS is like any other disease and treatments are available. 

Many had gone through hard times because of the stigma associated with the disease. It is improving and as we talk more about the disease, more people will come to terms with it.

HIV is not the killer disease. Lifestyle diseases like cancer and hypertension are killing more people. 

We talk openly about cancer or liver cirrhosis, caused by abusing alcohol, but we hesitate to discuss HIV/AIDS. 

Perhaps, our focus, no matter how well intended went wrong. The media is to blame too as they went full throttle with their coverage, scaring the people with terms such as “deadly disease” and “killer disease” to describe HIV/AIDS.

Unfortunately, HIV is also associated with sexual behaviour or misbehaviour.  There are several ways of getting infected, but to an average Bhutanese, if one is infected with the disease, he or she has not been faithful. There is enough awareness of HIV/AIDS. Perhaps the mistake is in the approach. Why would people stigmatise HIV positive people and not those with failed liver or kidney because of the lifestyle they chose?

It is not only with HIV/AIDS. In Bhutan we have “psycho doctors” and “psycho wards”, names for psychiatrist and psychiatric ward. People are discouraged to visit the facilities or seek help because of such names associated with diseases.

The approach should change. We should now shift to educating people on the disease. A good proportion of the population with fair knowledge of HIV could help us reduce the detection gap. 

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