Bhutan detects 79 HIV cases in 2022, the highest till date

At present, about 660 people are living with HIV (PLHIV) in the country

KARMA CHIMI | Thimphu

The Ministry of Health (MoH) reported 79 cases of human immunodeficiency viruses (HIV) in its combined biannual report for 2022, the highest annual figure recorded so far.

The MoH has identified 40 HIV cases in the past six months, from January to June 2022, which includes 19 male and 21 female cases. This was one of the highest numbers of cases identified in the six-month period.

From July to December last year, the ministry has identified 39 additional HIV cases, including 23 male and 16 female, bringing the total number of cases for 2022 to 79.

Out of 39 newly diagnosed cases, 23 were between the ages of 25 and 49, 13 were over 50 while the remaining three were below 25 years of age.

22 of the new cases have been identified through medical screening, eight through voluntary counseling and testing (VCT), six through contact tracing, two through antenatal care (ANC) screening, and one through blood donation screening services. 37 of the 39 new cases of HIV were sexually transmitted, while two were passed from mother to child (MTCT).

Meanwhile, of the 40 cases that were identified between January and June 2022, 28 were between the ages of 25 and 49, eight were over 50, two were between the ages of 20 and 24, and the remaining two were below five years.

In addition, 13 were diagnosed through medical screening, 12 through contact tracing, 10 through voluntary counseling and testing (VCT), and five through screening of pregnant mothers attending the Antenatal Care (ANC) services.

Out of the 40 cases, 38 of them are reported to have contracted HIV through unsafe heterosexual practices and two from MTCT.

The cumulative number of cases reported from 1993 until December 2022 is 874 (456 males and 418 females). At present, about 660 people are living with HIV (PLHIV) in the country.

Out of 660 PLHIV, 641 are on antiretroviral treatment (ART) taking the treatment coverage rate to 97 percent. About 178 of the reported cases died due to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) related complications since the diagnosis of the first case in 1993.

Despite the low prevalence of HIV in Bhutan, the need to intensify HIV counseling and testing is being accorded high priority by the government to bridge the current case detection gap of 32.7 percent of the estimated 1,300 HIV cases in the country.

The case detection gap has been reduced from 47.6 percent in 2019 to 32.7 percent in December 2022 resulting in an overall reduction of 14.9 percent in the last four years.

Health minister Dasho Dechen Wangmo said the ministry publishes half-yearly reports on HIV status in Bhutan. This year, 79 new HIV cases were detected which is the highest so far given the average detection of 55 cases annually.

The minister also stated that the increasing HIV detection is an indication that people are taking responsibility to come forward to test their status. Testing is made easier through health facilities, community-based HIV self-testing and outreach services.

“I urge all our people to consider getting tested for HIV as our responsibility to achieve the national goal of eliminating the AIDS epidemic by 2030,” the health minister said.

Further, the minister added that all expecting parents must undergo two-time testing during pregnancy check-ups to ensure the triple elimination of MTCT of HIV, congenital syphilis and hepatitis B.

Parents who are currently living with HIV and planning for children should adhere to HIV treatment and other care services to avoid any form of transmission to the child.

As part of the national response, MoH said they will strive to bridge the current case detection gap and to achieve the sustainable development goal of ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030.

Some of the strategies the MoH is currently implementing to achieve this ambitious goal are community-based testing using HIV self-testing kits to reach the untested and undiagnosed people living with HIV and targeted index testing (contact tracing) for partner notification to efficiently, and effectively identify HIV-positive individuals.

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 hospitals.

Furthermore, routine surveillance systems in the hospitals across the country are being strengthened to meet the requirement of the elimination of MTCT, Syphilis and Hepatitis B by 2025.

The ministry highlighted that the prevention of HIV is the responsibility of everyone, starting from an individual to the various stakeholders such as the government, non-governmental organizations, private sectors and people living with HIV.

“Most viable solution to prevent oneself from being 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 health minister said.

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