Bhutan recorded 22 new HIV AIDS cases between July and November taking the total detection to 54 cases in 2021
While efforts are underway to end HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) epidemic to a low-level endemic disease by 2030, Bhutan today has a case detection gap of 39 percent based on the UNAIDS estimation of 1,300 cases.
Since the first positive HIV case was reported in 1993, the Ministry of Health (MoH) has diagnosed 795 cases in 414 males and 381 females, including 22 new cases in 13 males and nine females detected in the past five months from July to November, of which 505 cases are undiagnosed for now.
This means, more needs to be done to help people get tested in the quest to bridge the current detection gap even though Bhutan continues to be one of the low HIV prevalence countries in the region.
Health minister Dasho Dechen Wangmo said that the most important goals for Bhutan to respond to the HIV/AIDS are to find the missing cases of HIV to narrow the case detection gap and eliminate Mother-to-Child Transmission (MTCT) of HIV, Syphilis, and Hepatitis B.
Lyonpo said that the health ministry is striving to make people aware of their HIV status through innovative means of HIV testing services and linking them with quality care, support, and treatment.
For instance, the demonstration project to assess the feasibility of HIV Self-Testing (HIVST) being launched last year on World AIDS Day has been completed following which will launch in six priority districts in its first phase targeting the high-risk populations.
However, Lyonpo cautioned about the likely risks associated with it – false-negative results and false reassurance during the acute infection, insufficient counseling, and the possibly delayed entry into care and treatment – if one does not adhere to the HIVST protocol of the ministry.
Despite the testing facilities available in all the hospitals, Primary Health Care Centres (BHUs), Health Information and Service Centers (HISC), and private diagnostic clinics, many people are still not coming forward for testing given several issues including HIV-related stigma, discrimination refers to prejudice, negative attitudes, and abuse are not moving as quickly as hoped.
Director for the Public Health Department, Tandin Dorji said this has discouraged a vulnerable group of people to come forward for testing despite the easy availability of testing facilities in all the health centers. “We urge our people to avail of the free HIV testing and counseling services as it is the only gateway for timely prevention, care, and treatment,” he added.
In addition, he said that the ministry is also studying the use of suitable rapid test kits which can conduct triple testing of HIV, Hepatitis B, and Syphilis for pregnant mothers.
Like many other countries in the region, most of the infection, accounting for 70 percent, in the country continues to occur among the most economically productive group of adults, especially those aged between 25- and 49-years-old including 18 newly infected with the virus in this age group.
Among the recent cases, six are farmers, five each detected from housewives and private/business while two are drivers and one each belongs to minors, a religious body – that has taken many by surprise – civil servants and corporate.
Unprotected sex is the most common route of HIV infection including 21 of 22 new cases that account for 95 percent of the total reported cases while one case was from Mother-to-Child Transmission (MTCT) – the first case detected this year taking the total cases to five percent in the country.
The vast majority of the cases including the nine recent cases were diagnosed through medical screening followed by six each from contact tracing and Voluntary Counseling and Testing (VCT) respectively while one was diagnosed during the antenatal care (ANC).
Meanwhile, health officials say that all the new cases are being put on care and treatment. A total of 54 HIV cases have been diagnosed in 2021 alone.