Every time there is a new report from the Ministry of Health about the disease, we find a rise in the number of HIV+ cases in the country. This is worrying.
This year, between November and June, 27 new HIV+ cases were detected in the country. Since the first case was detected 25 years ago in 1993, the number has reached 597. There are today, according to available records, 452 Bhutanese living with HIV+; 422 are on antiretroviral treatment.
There are also worrying number of defaulter and non-compliant cases. Because of a deep-seated stigma, many refuse from getting tested. This means probability of disease proliferation is high. According to 2018 UNAIDS estimation, Bhutan is supposed to detect 1,265 HIV cases.
We know that close to 80 percent of those living with the disease is between the ages of 20 and 49 years. This means if we do not increase our pace in fighting the disease with efficient means, a large number of our active population could be affected. The introduction of mobile HIV testing and counselling services, viral load services to monitor the treatment efficacy and installation of 55 condom vending machines have been laudable initiatives. Voluntary testing and medical screening have led to high detection level – 37 percent each. About 22 percent was detected through contract tracing and four percent through blood donor screening.
But we could certainly do more. Condom use and safe sex have been found to be highly unpopular among the Bhutanese.
Housewives, farmers and business people have been found to be the most vulnerable group, followed closely by drivers and civil servants. What this tells us is that the whole spectrum of our society is at risk. Fight against the disease, therefore, should be more focused and far-reaching.
Now with identification of gaps and opportunities, designing an appropriate and effective programme should not tax our imagination.
Beginning with promoting safe sex and condom use, the programme should focus primarily on destroying the stigma if we are to fight successfully against the threat of the disease. Otherwise, all our efforts could be at the best slapdash and repercussions grave.