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Health: Twenty-three new HIV cases have been detected since June to December this year, out of which 13 are male and 10 female, including a minor.

The majority of the reported cases (around 80 percent) are from private businesses, followed by occupational groups. The majority (78 percent) are aged between 20 to 49 years; 17 percent above 50 years. The rest are below the age of five.

From the 23 new cases, nine were detected through voluntary counselling and testing, seven while undergoing medical screening, five through contact tracing and two during antenatal care visits. In terms of route of transmission, 96 percent of were infected through heterosexual sex and four percent through mother to child transmission.

In 2016, the health ministry detected a total of 55 HIV cases, taking the total detected cases to 515 – 51 percent male and 49 percent female, including 35 children. About 40 to 45 cases are being diagnosed every year.

Almost 88 percent of the reported cases are persons aged between 15 to 49 years, which is considered the most productive age group.

These figures were released during the World AIDS Day, which was globally celebrated yesterday. Bhutan observed the day by re-dedicating efforts towards fulfilling the national and global commitments to end the AIDS epidemic by the year 2030.

The country also adopted the national pledge of bridging the case detection gap by 2020, to ensure that 90 percent of people living with HIV and AIDS to be treated by 2020 and ensure that all people diagnosed with HIV would be enrolled for sustained anti-retroviral therapy by 2020.

In line with these goals, the health ministry launched the National Strategic Plan-III (2017-2023) focusing on fast-tracking the country’s response to ending AIDS by 2030 in line with UNAIDS guidelines, and revised HIV treatment and management guidelines.

Health minister Tandin Wangchuk said that there is no need to be alarmed by the figures. The increase in number of HIV cases detected over the years is an indication of people understanding the importance of HIV testing.

“The number is more likely to increase as the health ministry further intensifies its HIV testing programme to bridge the case detection gap by 2020. Bhutan is undergoing a unique epidemiological transition, even though the overall HIV prevalence is less than 0.1 percent,” Lyonpo said. “The cases are reported from all the occupational backgrounds and by 2016; all the 20 dzongkhags have reported HIV cases. Therefore, the nature of HIV epidemic in the country is highly diffused.”

The majority of the reported cases are diagnosed through contact testing, which accounts to almost 30 percent, followed by medical screening and voluntary HIV counselling and testing.

However, the overwhelming majority, about 90 percent of people living with HIV, including newly diagnosed, continue to be infected through unsafe sexual practices, Lyonpo said. “Since the detection of the first HIV case in 1993, progressive achievements have been made in promoting safe sex practices, promotion of voluntary counselling and testing, and increasing enrolment on treatment.”

In 2016, the health ministry detected 55 HIV cases, taking the total number of detected cases to 515 from 1993

In 2016, the health ministry detected 55 HIV cases, taking the total number of detected cases to 515 from 1993

Lyonpo urged everyone to get tested now and that the HIV testing is made simple, accessible and confidential.

Health secretary, Dr Ugen Dophu, said that today the mother to child transmission of HIV in Bhutan has been drastically reduced. “This indicates that we are gearing towards the elimination of mother to child transmission of HIV to ensure AIDS-free generation.”

Lhak-Sam’s executive director, Wangda Dorji, said that according to the UNAIDS estimation of 1,100 HIV cases in Bhutan, there is still a case detection gap of 53 percent, which shows that many are still not aware of their HIV status.

“One of the main reasons for people delaying HIV test is because HIV remains in our body without any signs and symptoms for several years ranging from six to ten years. This is evident from the epidemic update report that many cases are detected at very late stages when the immune system has deteriorated and is unable to defend the body from infections,” Wangda Dorji said.

Wangda Dorji said that HIV testing is the only means to know our HIV status. Earlier detection is an advantage to lead a normal life. “I urge everyone to know your HIV status.”

Bhutan’s HIV response has been in line with and guided by the global and regional policies.

In 2015, an estimated 36.7 million people were living with HIV, 2.1 million were newly infected and 1.1 million died of AIDS-related illnesses. Access to HIV treatment has more than trebled during the last eight years and the global target of having 15 million living with HIV on HIV treatment by the end of last year was reached ahead of schedule.

With improved accessibility to quality and accessible antiretroviral, the world has seen remarkable progress in reducing the rate of new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths over the last five years.

Thinley Zangmo

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