Jigmi Wangdi

The Bhutan Stroke Foundation (BSF) yesterday carried out a stroke risk assessment for 94 corporate and media employees in Thimphu.

The foundation carries out regular stroke risk assessments to understand the demographics of high stroke risk.

Out of the 94 individuals assessed for the risk of stroke, 54 or 57.4 percent were found to be at high risk, meaning they were obese, hypertensive, or had other health conditions.

The foundation advocates for the prevention of stroke using the acronym BE-FAST, which stands for the loss of balance of the body, eyesight problem, facial drooping, arm or leg weakness, speech difficulty, and time to visit hospital.

The BSF’s executive director, Dawa Tshering, said Bhutan currently has no data on high-risk groups, which would help determine the possibility of stroke among a certain age group.

A quick response to the symptoms of stroke, also known as a brain attack, is the most effective way to treat it. Reaching a hospital that has stroke services within four and a half hours will give a high chance of survival with minimum complications. Responses later than that could result in severe disability or death.

“We are targeting office goers for now. By creating awareness among them, they know the current state of stroke in the country,” Dawa Tshering said.

The foundation has conducted stroke risk assessments in Thimphu, Zhemgang, Wangdue, Punakha and Chukha.

Dawa Tshering said that non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, are well-known in Bhutan. However, many people do not know about stroke and its impact on a patient’s livelihood.

“Although most people do not know about it, we cannot deny that the cases of stroke patients visiting hospitals are increasing,” he said. “There has been an increasing trend since 2020.”

According to medical records with Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital, there were 876 stroke patients between 2021 and October 2023. There were 316 cases in 2021, which increased to 332 cases in 2022.

Dawa Tshering said that the stress people went through during the Covid-19 pandemic, sedentary lifestyle owing to the lockdowns, and consumption of tobacco and alcohol as stress relievers may have caused the rise in cases.

He said stroke is 80 to 90 percent preventable and depends mainly on an individual’s lifestyle. Risk factors that can be controlled include high cholesterol, reducing smoking and alcohol, and unhealthy diet.

With the increase in stroke cases in hospitals, he said that the number of people seeking help from the BSF has also increased.

“Most people call us, seeking help to care for their patients. Unfortunately, we can only help 5 percent of the time as we do not have the resources to do so,” Dawa Tshering said.

Today, the most effective treatment for stroke is either reaching the hospital within the four-hour window or changing lifestyle habits to prevent it completely.

Bhutan currently does not have an effective post-stroke care system and no proper follow-up mechanism is in place.

Dawa Tshering said that hospitals currently only have physiotherapists. “We need occupational and speech therapists as well,” he said, adding that there is also a need for counsellors because most patients and their caregivers become depressed and burnt out.

Creating awareness of prevention and educating the public on stroke is one way to ensure that the issue can be addressed.

Dawa Tshering said that the awareness about stroke and its consequences is little to none, especially in rural parts of the country.

The BSF has assisted 30 patients since its inception in 2019. It faces a growing demand for support, with over 200 registered patients seeking assistance.