79 new HIV cases detected in a year, which is the highest so far given the average detection of 55 cases annually
In an alarming revelation, Bhutan detected 39 new HIV cases between July to December 2022, taking the total number of those detected with the virus to 79, the highest in a year. 40 cases were detected from January to June 2022. The average number of cases detected so far was 55 annually.
Of the 39 detected, 23 are male and 16 female. In the first 40 new HIV cases detected between January and June 2022, there were 19 male and 21 female. Out of 39 newly diagnosed cases, 23 are between 25-49 years old, 13 are above 50, and the remaining 3 are below 25.
According to a press release from the Ministry of Health, 22 have been diagnosed through medical screening, 8 through Voluntary Counseling and Testing (VCT), 6 through contact tracing and 1 each through Antenatal Care (ANC) screening services and blood donation.
The cumulative number of cases reported from 1993 until December 2022 is 874 (456 males and 418 females).
The press release states that at present there are about 660 people living with HIV (PLHIV) of which 641 are on antiretroviral treatment (ART) taking the treatment coverage rate to 97%. About 178 of the reported cases died due to AIDS-related complications since the diagnosis of the first case in 1993.
According to the health minister, Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo, “The increasing HIV detection is an indication that people are taking responsibility to come forward to test their status.” Lyonpo added that testing is made easier through health facilities, community-based HIV self-testing and outreach services.
The health ministry publishes half-yearly reports on HIV status in Bhutan.
“MoH will strive hard to bridge the current case detection gap and to achieve the sustainable development goal of ending the AIDs epidemic by 2030,” the press release states.
Lyonpo has further added that the ministry of health is currently implementing to achieve the goals of community-based testing index testing (contract tracing) for partner notification to efficiently and effectively identify HIV- positive individuals.
“Despite the low prevalence of HIV in Bhutan, the need to intensify HIV Counseling and Testing is being accorded high priority by the Royal Government of Bhutan to bridge the current case detection gap of 32.7% of the estimated 1300 HIV cases in the country. The case detection gap has been reduced from 47.6% in 2019 to 32.7% in December 2022 resulting in an overall reduction of 14.9% in the last four years,” the press release states.
Meanwhile, the minister added that all expecting parents must undergo two-time testing during pregnancy check to ensure the triple elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, congenital syphilis and hepatitis B.
Moreover, parents who are currently living with HIV and planning for children should adhere to HIV and HIV treatment and other care services to avoid any transmission to the child.
Additionally, the Ministry is also enhancing efforts to continue streamlining provider-initiated HIV counseling and testing services across the health facilities as a standard component of medical care and through random testing of laboratory samples in all the hospitals.
Further, the MoH urged all the people to consider getting tested for HIV as their Gyenkhu to achieve the national goal of eliminating the AIDs epidemic by 2030.
Bhutan began its fight against HIV/AIDS even before the first case was reported. Five years prior to the detection of the first case of HIV, recognizing the adverse impact of HIV the Royal Government of Bhutan established the National STI and HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Programme (NACP) in 1988. This was followed by the inception of National AIDS Committee (NAC) in 1993 to oversee and coordinate multi-sectoral efforts to ensure a harmonized response to HIV in the country. The NAC was later restructured to form the National HIV and AIDS Commission (NHAC) for policy formulation and strategic responses to mitigate the impact of HIV in the country. Following the institutional establishment, planned activities were implemented over the years with a major focus on prevention and improving access to care and treatment services for the PLHIV in the country.
After the first case was detected in 1993, the government initiated several preventive measures. Treatment was also introduced and it can be said that Bhutan has made significant strides in fighting sexually transmitted diseases (STD), chiefly AIDS, ever since the first case was detected in 1993.
In an earlier interview with the paper, health officials had said that with 835 cases reported from 1993 till June 2022 (433 males and 402 females,) and 628 people living with the virus, the numbers may appear less. However, the triple-figure is mammoth for a country of just around 700,000 people. Unlike other countries, where patients do not have access to medical care, about 608 HIV patients here are on antiretroviral treatment (ART).
As a small society, stigmatization is a major concern in Bhutan. To break it and ensure that the vulnerable are tested, the MoH has also started distributing self-testing kits. Early diagnosis is very vital for those affected with the virus. While a lot has changed since 1993, due to advances in medical science and technology, HIV/AIDs patients have started to lead lives like any normal person.
Meanwhile, in the current press release, a call for unity has been made. “The prevention of HIV is the responsibility of everyone, starting from an individual to the various stakeholders such as the government, NGOs, private sectors and people living with HIV. The most viable solution to prevent oneself from infected is to abstain from unsafe sex by practicing correct and consistent use of condoms, not sharing injected drug use needles and being faithful to one’s partner,” the press release states.
Tshering Pelden from Thimphu