With positive cases increasing by the year, fighting HIV/AIDS remains a formidable challenge.
According to latest reports, 22 HIV positive cases were detected in the last five months, taking the country’s total positive cases to 54.
We know enough, perhaps more than enough, about HIV/AIDS and the modes through which the disease can be transmitted. However, despite relentless awareness programmes unprotected sex remains the principal mode of transmission in Bhutan.
Since the detection of the first HIV positive case in the country in 1993, the health ministry has so far diagnosed 795 HIV positive cases. On the intervention part, awareness and education continues to be our approach in tackling the disease.
As positive cases grow, perhaps we need to rethink our strategies and approach. If awareness and education is not working, does it mean that we aren’t doing enough? Are we not reaching out to the right target groups? Where are we falling short?
These are important questions. But, more important, answers must be found.
Health officials say that while efforts are being made to bridge the detection gap, the progress is slow—with 599 undetected cases last year, the detection gap stood at 43 percent.
It is believed that Bhutan could have around 1,300 positive cases. Going by the detection gap of 39 percent today, this ballpark figure could be far too less.
Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo said that the ministry was striving to make people aware of their HIV status through innovative means of testing services and linking the public with quality care, support, and treatment.
The good news is that the health ministry is launching HIV self-testing (HIVST) initiative in six priority dzongkhags of Thimphu, Paro, Phuentsholing, Gelephu, Samdrupjongkhar, and Samtse. The bad news is, launched last year, the momentum has been strenuously slow.
The initiative, priority and pace given, has the potential to help many of those unreached key and vulnerable groups and individuals with greater access to HIV testing services. We already have testing services in all health care facilities in the country, including private clinics. This is a good start, but we can certainly do more to reduce the number of positive cases.
What we also know is that close to 70 percent of HIV cases in Bhutan are among the economically productive age group—25 to 49. This could have an adverse impact on the health and economy of the country in the long run.
Creative promotion of safe sex and condom use must receive renewed drive. Destroying stigma remains our biggest challenge still. Fighting HIV/AIDS needs renewed and sustained focus.