New cases of HIV continued to show an encouraging fall in the first half of this year, but Singapore has to remain on guard.
In an effort to encourage more people to go for testing and seek treatment, Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor revealed yesterday that the Government is providing subsidies for HIV medication for the first time.
They are being made available to patients at public hospitals and health-care institutions. Around 40 patients have benefited from the subsidies since they were introduced in September.
The move has made anti-retroviral drugs - which help to decrease levels of the virus in patients' bodies - more affordable. The drugs cost between $300 and $800 a month.
HIV patients with a per capita monthly household income of not more than $1,800 can get up to 75 per cent off the price of anti-retroviral medication.
Those with a per capita monthly household income of more than $1,800 can get up to 50 per cent in subsidies, depending on their financial status.
For the most needy patients, financial aid scheme Medifund will help to cover the cost of treatment.
Speaking at the biennial Singapore Aids Conference organised by Action for Aids (AFA) and Tan Tock Seng Hospital yesterday, Dr Khor said: "We hope that this will address affordability concerns that may be preventing them from coming forward to be tested for HIV early and to start treatment early."
There were 155 new HIV cases reported among Singapore residents in the first half of this year - down from 198 in the same six-month period last year and 215 in 2012, according to the Ministry of Health.
But worryingly, nearly half already had late-stage HIV infection when they were diagnosed.
Two groups remain particularly "at risk" - heterosexual men who have casual and commercial sex and homosexual men.
Dr Khor said: "We must work harder to improve this situation. This is why the Government will maintain, and expand where feasible, the accessibility of HIV testing in Singapore."
The human immunodeficiency virus attacks the body's immune system and is transmitted mainly through sexual intercourse, although it can spread in other ways such as sharing contaminated needles or receiving a transfusion of infected blood.
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (Aids) is the disease caused by HIV.
Dr Khor, chairman of the National HIV/Aids Policy Committee, said cost and stigma are among the reasons that put people off going for HIV tests.
She noted: "We will continue to work with stakeholders such as community organisations, companies and other agencies in the public sector on HIV-related issues."
Reducing costs and the stigma associated with HIV is crucial in managing the spread of Aids, according to Mr Michael Loh, executive director of the Catholic Aids Response Effort, which runs a shelter for people living with the virus.
He said: "It's a good move on the part of the Government to make the drugs more accessible. The drugs are not cheap, so this will definitely help those who cannot afford it.
"The disease does carry with it a very strong stigma, but we must all realise that these are people who did not choose to have this illness, so instead of condemning them, we should treat them with compassion."
Professor Leo Yee Sin, director of the Institute of Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, added: "There is still quite a significant element of fear among the community and public towards HIV. In the past, we viewed it as a deadly disease. Today, we know it is a chronic disease which can be treated."
At the conference, Professor Leo, AFA president Roy Chan, National University of Singapore Associate Professor Wong Mee Lian and the DSC (Department of Sexually Transmitted Infections Control) Clinic were given the Red Ribbon awards for their efforts in HIV care and prevention.
This article was first published on Nov 30, 2014.
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