Bhutan Table of Contents

Bhutan's health-care development accelerated in the early 1960s with the establishment of the Department of Public Health and the opening of new hospitals and dispensaries throughout the country. By the early 1990s, health care was provided through some twentynine general hospitals (including five leprosy hospitals, three army hospitals, and one mobile hospital), forty-six dispensaries, sixty-seven basic health units, four indigenous-medicine dispensaries, and fifteen malaria eradication centers. The major hospitals were in Thimphu, Geylegphug, and Tashigang. Hospital beds in 1988 totaled 932. There was a severe shortage of health-care personnel with official statistics reporting only 142 physicians and 678 paramedics, about one health-care professional for every 2,000 people, or only one physician for almost 10,000 people. Training for health-care assistants, nurses' aides, midwives, and primary health-care workers was provided at Thimphu General Hospital's Health School, which was established in 1974. Graduates of the school were the core of the national public health system and helped staff the primary care basic health units throughout the country. Additional health-care workers were recruited from among volunteers in villages to supplement primary health care.

The most common diseases in the 1980s were gastrointestinal infections caused by waterborne parasites, mostly attributable to the lack of clean drinking water. The most frequently treated diseases were respiratory tract infections, diarrhea and dysentery, worms, skin infections, malaria, nutritional deficiencies, and conjunctivitis. In 1977 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Bhutan a smallpox-free zone. In 1979 a nationwide immunization program was established. In 1987, with WHO support, the government envisioned plans to immunize all children against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, tuberculosis, and measles by 1990. The government's major medical objective by 2000 was to eliminate waterborne parasites, diarrhea and dysentery, malaria, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and goiter. Progress in leprosy eradication was made in the 1970s and 1980s, during which time the number of patients had decreased by more than half, and by 1988 the government was optimistic that the disease could be eliminated by 2000.

It was estimated in 1988 that only 8 persons per 1,000 had access to potable water. Despite improved amenities provided to the people through government economic development programs, Bhutan still faced basic health problems. Factors in the country's high morbidity and death rates included the severe climate, less than hygienic living conditions, for example long-closed-up living quarters during the winter, a situation that contributes to the high incidence of leprosy, and smoke inhalation from inadequately ventilated cooking equipment. Nevertheless, in 1980 it was estimated that 90 percent of Bhutanese received an adequate daily caloric intake.

Although there were no reported cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), the Department of Public Health set up a public awareness program in 1987. With the encouragement of the WHO, a "reference laboratory" was established at the Thimphu General Hospital to test for AIDS and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as a precautionary measure. To further enhance awareness, representatives of the National Institute of Family Health were sent to Bangladesh in 1990 for training in AIDS awareness and treatment measures.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress