Younten Tshedup 

Of the 32 people, who tested positive for HIV in the last six months, three are from the religious body, 11 are housewives, five each from private sector, business community, driver, and farmers.

A prisoner and two unemployed youth also tested positive for HIV.

Of the total, 17 are aged between 25 and 49 years and eight are above 50 years.

In the past five years, almost 33 people have tested positive for HIV between January and June every year, which meant almost six people tested positive for the virus every month.

As per data maintained by the health ministry’s national HIV, AIDS and STIs control programme, the new cases include  17 men and 15 women.

According to health officials, the mode of transmission in all the new cases was through unprotected sex. There was no case of mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) reported.

Fifteen of the new cases were diagnosed through voluntary counselling and testing, five each from antenatal screening and contact tracing while six were through medical screening and one from blood donor screening.

Health officials said a major challenge in combating HIV in Bhutan was the detection gap.

Bhutan today has an HIV detection gap of 40.5 percent. Since the first HIV positive case detected in 1993, the health ministry has so far diagnosed 773 (401 male and 372 female) HIV cases.

UNAIDS estimates that the country has around 1,300 positive cases of which 527 cases are unidentified for now. “While efforts are ongoing to bridge the detection gap, the progress has been very slow,” said an official.

With 599 undetected cases last year, the detection gap stood at 43 percent last year.

To bridge the detection gap, the health ministry last year launched the HIV self-testing (HIVST) initiative, which the ministry is now rolling out in six priority dzongkhags of Thimphu, Paro, Phuentsholing, Gelephu, Samdrupjongkhar, and Samtse beginning this month. The programme is supported by the Global Fund (National and Regional Grant) and the World Health Organisation.

Sowai Lyonpo (health minister) Dechen Wangmo said that the HIVST initiative was being provided in addition to the existing facility-based and mobile HIV testing services in the country.

She said that the initiative would help many of those unreached key and vulnerable populations to have greater access to HIV testing services with convenience.

However, the minister cautioned that with convenience there was risk associated with false-negative results and false assurance during the acute phase of infection, insufficient counselling and possible delay in the entry into care and treatment if individuals did not follow the HIVST protocol.

The minister said that the ministry would apply lessons learnt from the colliding epidemics of HIV and Covid-19 to create a resilient health care system in the country.

Public health department’s officiating director, Rixin Jamtsho, said the ministry had expanded its HIV testing programme ‘like never before’ and that the testing services were available in all the health care facilities in the country including private clinics.

Meanwhile, almost 70 percent of the reported HIV cases in Bhutan are among the economically productive age groups of 25 to 49 years.

About 93.9 percent were infected through the heterosexual route, five percent from mother to child transmission (MTCT), 0.8 percent from injecting drug use.

A total of 54 HIV cases were diagnosed in 2020 alone.

Edited by Tashi Dema