It was 20 years ago in 1993, when Bhutan detected its first HIV positive case; yet the virus continues to wreak havoc even so. Today after 2 decades, the country has seen a sharp rise in HIV positive cases, 346 till date. To awaken consciousness of every person towards the virus, Bhutan annually organises awareness programs in the remotest of villages across 20 districts. In addition, Bhutan’s health care has been equipped with best and premium facilities; technologically sound and efficient human resource base. As part of the ongoing HIV/AIDS awareness drive, Bhutan observed a mass campaign on 1st December, the globally recognized World Aids Day. The Global event which was organised in the capital, Thimphu saw the coming together of people from all walks of life, in a show of solidarity for those People living with the virus in the country. This year, Bhutan chooses to focus on Parent to Child transmission with a promulgated vision to eliminate HIV by 2015.
This year’s World AIDS day was observed in the Capital. The day kick-started by a modest saying of grace followed by lighting of butter lamps in Memorial Chorten praying for the people affected by HIV and as solidarity the entire RENEW family joined the Lhaksam members and staff to offer prayers. Thereafter the group walked towards the capital’s Clock Tower to witness a series of variety shows/presentations on HIV/AIDS.
Her Majesty Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck graced the occasion and launched the Strategic Plan for Lhak-Sam thus this validating her unreserved commitment to the cause. Her Majesty is also the Patron of Lhak-Sam, a CSO established by People Living with HIV (PLHIV) in Bhutan. Lhak-sam is a network of HIV positive people in Bhutan established in September 2009 with the main aim to build a support system for themselves. Since their establishment, 5 HIV positives broke their silence on national broadcast, BBS detailing their challenges and untold experiences. Under her benevolence and guidance, Bhutan has moved forward in up scaling in voluntary HIV testing and counselling services nationwide. Services are now available in all 184 basic health units (BHUs), this achievement makes possible for Bhutan to achieve one of the Millennium Development Goal targets for universal access to treatment for HIV/AIDS for all by 2015. In the last 2 decades, concerted efforts have made it possible for Bhutan to scale up HIV prevention, treatment and support services.
UNRC Ms. Christina Carlson, UN Resident Coordinator in Bhutan, in her statement said, “In order to achieve the intended goal of the Royal Government, further strengthening of sexual and reproductive health and HIV services to ensure universal access to the information and services is of utmost importance. In addition, women and girls must be empowered to negotiate safer sex – just having access to condoms is not enough. Men and boys must be proactively engaged as partners to redress gender inequality.”
It was Her Majesty’s undying dedication to fight against HIV/AIDS that lead to the conceptualization of Lhak-sam. RENEW and Lhak-sam, together and separately continue to conduct programs that assist in the virus eradication from the country. Her Majesty lunched the first five year strategic plan for Lhak-sam which will cater towards mitigating the impact of HIV/AIDS in the country. Parallel to the ongoing function, a free camp was set up for those interested to get themselves tested for HIV.
In the keynote address during the event, the Health Minister Tandin Wanghuck said “...but more needs to be done to ensure that every child is born HIV-free in the country”. With HIV testing services now available nationwide, the Minister urged all pregnant women to visit health care facilities and prevent transmission to the child. The country still has about 27 HIV positive children. “Given the size of our population, the rate of mother to child transmission of HIV is a concern” Minister said.
Health officials brought into light the fact that Bhutan still had a long climb ahead to detect more number of cases before it begins “halts and reverses the trend by 2015” drive. The reverse trend can come into effect only once the country finishes its detecting exercise. According to experts, Bhutan is considered a ‘diffused form of epidemic’, with cases reported from every occupational category, from unemployed to those employed in the private, corporate and government, to uniformed and religious personnel.
In support of the Day’s theme, Lhak-Sam’s Executive director Wangda Dorji came forward to declare a verifiable truth that mother to child transmission can be prevented. He said “None of my four children, despite their parents being HIV positive, have HIV - Mother to child transmission can be prevented, and I urge you all to access the health services we have in place.”