Let’s fill the gap

Bhutan in the past 11 months detected 54 new HIV cases. That is, on average, a new case every week.

Of the estimated 1,300 HIV cases in the country, we diagnosed 384 male and 357 female cases since testing began in 1993. That means about 559 cases are roaming freely. 

The dangers are increasing exponentially by the minute.

That another  year has passed without many cases undetected is worrying, lamentable.

Even more unsettling is the fact that almost 70 percent of the reported HIV cases in Bhutan is among people aged 25 to 49 years. 

As a poor country, this is a huge loss considering what even the loss of a pair of hands can have on the economy in the long term.

The only good thing about the report this year is that most of the cases were diagnosed through voluntary counselling and testing.

It could only mean that the advocacy efforts and strategies of the government and the non-governmental organisations and and others involved are working.

But we can do more. We must.

The detection rate spiked in 2006 after the health ministry established health information and service centres (HISC) in Thimphu and Phuentsholing.

The health ministry’s introduction of HIV Self Testing (HIVST) as a part of the community-led testing next month could lead to an increase in detection. But how effective it could become will largely depend on how efficiently the ministry rolls it out, for this system is also not free of problems.

Bhutan has committed to ending the HIV epidemic by 2030. We have not much time. But even otherwise, testing needs to pick up.

Social stigma and discrimination will be a major deterrence to many to come forward to test themselves. We have to ensure there is no stigma and discrimination in health care settings.  This, we know, is easier said than done.

The advocacy campaign needs to be more aggressive. Using social media and public mass media to create awareness on the availability of treatment so that those with the virus would be encouraged to come forward and avail themselves of the services could be a way. What about playing these advocacy messages in public transport?

Testing could become part of the recruitment for civil servants or major corporate bodies. All those seeking medical certificates could be subjected to the test. Why not?

Bring everyone on board to advocate voluntary testing. If worst comes to worst, make it mandatory. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

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