BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – In the past five years, there has been an increase in the number of younger patients seeking treatment for HIV in Brunei, said a physician from the Infectious Diseases Unit of RIPAS Hospital.

Speaking during a national HIV symposium for healthcare professionals on Sunday, Dr Hjh Riamiza Natalie Hj Momin said that ages of HIV patients in the country range from those in their late teens to those in their 70s.

“We are now seeing people living with HIV in that [younger] age bracket, whereas we were not seeing that before [five years ago],” she later told The Scoop in an interview.

Infectious Diseases Physician of RIPAS Hospital, Dr Hjh Riamiza Natalie Hj Momin delivers her presentation at the National HIV Symposium for healthcare professional in conjunction with World AIDS Day 2018 on December 2. Photo: Rasidah HAB/The Scoop

The majority of HIV cases in Brunei were sexually transmitted, the doctor added, with a significant number of patients denying that they contracted the diseases through sexual contact.

According to 2017 data, there are 189 persons known to be living with HIV in Brunei, and 265 diagnoses made since the virus was first detected in 1986.

The Ministry of Health has identified high-risk groups, which include men who have sex with men; and people with multiple sexual partners.

Other modes of transmission include sharing of infected syringes, mother-to-child transmission, and receiving HIV-infected blood transfusions.

The Infectious Diseases Unit is responsible for providing inpatient and outpatient care for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Dr Hjh Riamiza said majority of HIV patients are in outpatient care, where they receive counselling, start medical treatments and undergo regular follow-ups for the rest of their life.

“Patients who have been on treatment for a long time… are older patients, they have been in treatment for longer and their HIV is relatively well-controlled.

“They have to start thinking about [other implications ] chronic illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension,” she said.

Healthcare professionals attending the National HIV Symposium, organised in conjunction with World AIDS Day 2018. Photo: Rasidah HAB/The Scoop

While HIV is no longer seen as a death sentence it once was 30 years ago — and AIDS-related deaths around the world  have been reduced significantly — many more deaths can be prevented through proper medical care, with antiretroviral treatment allowing HIV patients to live up to a normal life expectancy.

People who seek treatment late or are already in advanced stages of the disease will face greater challenges, said Dr Hjh Riamiza, stressing the importance of HIV testing.

“It becomes more challenging in that they become more frail, they present more opportunistic infections. It becomes much harder to bring them back to wellness.”

Discrimination and stigma are often factors that prevent people from undergoing testing, but laws contained within the Infectious Disease Act, protect the identity of persons with HIV/AIDS, or other sexually transmitted diseases.

Dr Hjh Riamiza said healthcare professionals in Brunei need to be better informed about caring for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Essentially, people living with HIV are just like any other patient. They seek help because they want to get better. So, for all those who engage with healthcare — from primary healthcare to secondary healthcare — treat them with respect, dignity and hopefully this will reduce the stigma and make them seek testing and treatment earlier.

The physician stressed that Brunei needs to recognise and close the gaps in HIV healthcare services.

“Ideally, we would like to have a full-fledged service — properly manned, from medical practitioners to nursing to allied health. We also need to understand the service better, collect more data and see which way we are heading so that we can plan ahead.”

The National HIV Symposium for healthcare professional was organised in conjunction with World AIDS Day 2018, and held at UBD’s Institute of Health Sciences.