HIV and Hepatitis screening also planned at flu clinics once the situation gets better  

Younten Tshedup  

The Covid-19 outbreak seems to be under control, for now, and the country is gradually returning to normalcy. But another pathogen, more than a century old, is silently causing major public health problems across the world, including Bhutan.

Tuberculosis (TB) continues to affect close to 1,000 Bhutanese every year. Not everyone with TB is detected today, leaving the rest of the population more vulnerable of contracting the disease.

As per the World Health Organisation (WHO) the estimated incidence of TB cases in Bhutan in 2019 was 1,300 cases. Only 1,016 cases were reported to the national TB control programme.

In an attempt to close the detection gap, the health ministry has started to screen people for TB at the flu clinics that were set up in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in March last year.

In the last two weeks, after starting the TB screening programme at flu clinics, six new TB positive cases were detected. A total of 58 patients were screened for TB across 58 flu clinics in the country.  The three mobile flu clinics in Thimphu also provide TB screening services.

Chief of communicable disease division, Rixin Jamtsho, said that people with Covid-19 and TB show similar symptoms such as cough, fever and breathing difficulties.

He said that while reporting for flu-like symptoms at the flu clinics, health workers also look for presumptive TB among the visitors. Anyone having a cough for more than two weeks or a combination of symptoms such as fever, weight loss, night sweats or chest pain and blood in sputum were screened for TB.

Rixin Jamtsho said that it was also important for people to declare possible history of TB in the family members or friends, if any. “We have started to pick up TB cases from the flu clinics and now we would also be starting HIV screening at the flu clinics as there is some correlation between these diseases.”

He said that people with any flu-like symptoms should visit the flu clinics and not the hospitals directly. This is to keep the risk of transmission of respiratory illnesses as low as possible, he added.

Besides reducing the hospital visitation and preventing the risk of transmission, the flu clinics were also established to provide quick health services for those suffering from flu-like symptoms.

Established in the wake of the pandemic, Rixin Jamtsho said that the flu clinics would now be turned into permanent facilities.

He said that in some of the hospitals where there was enough space, permanent flu clinics were set up. “We are going to construct semi-permanent structures for flu clinics in all the regional hospitals and some district hospitals where the population is big.”

From 30 to 50 patients a day before the lockdown, flu clinics in Thimphu are seeing about 300 to 400 patients a day today. On some days, there were over 1,000 visitors.

During the second lockdown, flu clinics in the country tested over 35,000 people. Flu clinics in Thimphu tested close to 10,000 people.