Staff Reporter 

Bhutan recorded a new HIV case every week, on average, this year.

The health ministry in the last six months (June to November) detected 20 new HIV cases, 10 men and women each. There were 34 cases detected between January to June earlier this year.

Among the new cases, majority (17) of them were between 25 to 49 years old and the remaining three were above 50 years. By occupation, six each were detected in private/business and housewives, three in uniformed personnel, two each in civil servants and farmers and one was a driver.

Unprotected sexual intercourse with an opposite-sex remains the common mode of infection among the 20 new cases. Twelve of them were diagnosed through voluntary counselling and testing (VCT), four from medical screening, three from contact tracing, and one through the antenatal clinic.

According to a press release from the health ministry, all 20 were put in care and treatment at the national referral hospital.

Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said that the ministry was committed to strive in making people know their HIV status through innovative means of HIV testing services and quality care, support and treatment.

Lyonpo said that one of the measures was the introduction of HIV Self Testing (HIVST) as a part of the community-led testing and then roll out new medicines for HIV/AIDS. Advantages with HIVST, she said, also came with some disadvantages such as the risk of false-negative results and false reassurance during the acute infection, insufficient counselling and possible delayed entry into care and treatment if one did not  adhere to the HIVST protocol of the ministry.

The ministry would be rolling out the HIVST in six major urban districts – Thimphu, Paro, Phuentsholing, Gelephu, Samdrupjongkhar and Samtse. The press release stated that the ministry in collaboration with Save the Children Bhutan and through the support of Global Fund Regional Grant, was in the process of developing the necessary guidelines and protocols for the HIVST and community lead testing.

The health ministry is also working with different stakeholders in government and NGOs including financial institutions for the economic empowerment of the marginalised key populations by building their knowledge and skills in entrepreneurship to mitigate the impact of Covid-19.

Lyonpo said that shared responsibility was important in the overall response towards HIV/AIDS.

“Such cooperation and support from stakeholders in the past have made good progress towards elimination of Mother to Child Transmission (eMTCT) of HIV, Syphilis and Hepatitis-B,” she said.

“The ministry is working towards validating the eMTCT to enable Bhutan to declare its Zero MTCT of HIV, Syphilis and Hepatitis-B in the region at the earliest possible. Works for validation exercises are underway”.

Director Public Health, Dr Karma Lhazeen, said that pandemic had worsened the challenges faced by people living with HIV, women and girls including female sex workers, men having sex with men, and transgender populations as many lost their source of income and faced difficulty in accessing the health care services.

However, the director added that the Covid-19 crisis has also come as a wake-up call and as an opportunity to do things differently – better, and together. She said that AIDS, as a public health threat, could be overcome if the 3T (Testing, Treating and Tracking) method used for Covid-19 is applied.

Since 1993, of the estimated 1,300 HIV cases in the country, the health ministry has diagnosed 741 (384 male and 357 Female) cases. Efforts to find the missing 559 cases and to bridge the detection gap of 43 percent is still on.

Like many other countries in the region, almost 70 percent of the reported HIV cases in Bhutan is among people aged 25 to 49 years. This shows that HIV in Bhutan primarily affects the economically productive population.

Almost 94 percent of the infected have acquired the infection through the heterosexual route, while 5.3 percent were from mother to child transmission and 0.4 percent each from injecting drug use and blood transfusion (outside Bhutan).

Health officials said that stigma and discrimination could largely discourage vulnerable groups from showing up for testing. The likelihood of stigma and discrimination in health care settings was also high, deterring people from accessing health services or enjoying quality health care, stated the press release.

Today, there are scientifically well-proven effective HIV medicines that can reduce HIV in the body and improve their immune system. However, timely testing, according to officials, was the only means to know the HIV status of individuals, initiate early treatment and to prevent a person from getting full-blown AIDS at a later stage.