In Singapore, notification of HIV/AIDS is a statutory requirement. Under the Infectious Diseases Act, all medical practitioners and laboratories are legally required to notify every case of HIV/AIDS infection to the National HIV Registry using the MD131 form. Notifications can be carried out via the Internet, fax or mail.
Epidemiological information on HIV infection and AIDS can be obtained from the National HIV Registry at the National Public Health Unit (NPHU), which is under the purview of the Communicable Diseases Division (CDD) of the Ministry of Health (MOH). Demographic and relevant clinical information of these cases are maintained in the Registry for the purpose of surveillance, monitoring and contact tracing.
The first cases of HIV infection in Singapore were diagnosed in 2 male patients in 1985 by Drs. Chew Suok Kai and Edmund Monteiro at the Communicable Disease Centre (CDC) along Moulmein Road. The first case of AIDS was also diagnosed there in a male patient in September 1986.
The predominant mode of HIV transmission in Singapore since 1985 has been via the sexual route. The HIV epidemic in Singapore was initially identified in the earlier period between 1985 and 1990 mainly in homosexual and bisexual men, and less frequently amongst heterosexual men. This was the result of homosexual and bisexual males contracting the virus from industrialised countries, namely the United States, Australia and Western Europe, and returning home with the infection. At the end of the 1980s, there were still no cases of HIV infection detected in haemophiliacs and intravenous drug users.
In 1985, ten men and women, mostly gay healthcare professionals, who were concerned that there was no government initiative to tackle the growing HIV epidemic as the early cases occurred only in the very marginalised MSM community, came together to form the informal core of a group which they subsequently named Action for AIDS (AfA). It nominated Dr. Roy Chan of the National Skin Centre as its president.
On 30 November 1988, Action for AIDS was registered with the Registrar of Societies.
On 1 December 1988, AfA organised the first ever World AIDS Day (WAD) fundraising and awareness event called Charity Jukebox st Centrepoint. It featured many top local entertainers and was sponsored by The Body Shop.
With the exception of 1989, the number of cases of HIV infection and AIDS has shown an upward trend since then.
The pattern of HIV being detected mainly in homosexual and bisexual men changed in the late 1980s, when increasing numbers of heterosexual men were diagnosed with HIV, far outstripping the numbers of gay and bisexual males. This was an expected observation, as there were much larger numbers of heterosexuals in the community, and given the epidemiology of HIV infection in the surrounding region. It was thought that the large majority of infections amongst heterosexuals had been contracted via sexual contact with sex workers in neighbouring countries, particularly Thailand. The Thai epidemic amongst female sex workers took off in the mid-1980s.
With the increasing numbers of straight males getting infected, more females with HIV were detected, and also paediatric cases, the result of mother-to-child transmission.
From 1991 onwards, heterosexual transmission became the dominant mode of HIV transmission in Singapore until 2011.
In 1999, Paddy Chew came out to the general public as Singapore’s first person living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), finally giving a face to the epidemic. His efforts are still remembered vividly today - his interviews with the press, his collaborative writing and performance of his play with The Necessary Stage, “Completely With/Out Character”.
In 2000, three significant changes in official policy with regard to HIV/AIDs occurred, largely due to the efforts of AfA's advocacy both behind the scenes and in public forums and Paddy Chew's coming out.
- Singapore hospices began to accept HIV-positive patients.
- The Ministry of the Environment ended its unscientific practice of burying the dead bodies of PWAs like toxic waste.
- It was affirmed that foreign HIV-positive spouses of Singaporeans would no longer be deported.
From 2000 to 2007, the annual incidence of HIV infection nearly doubled from 226 to 422.
A survey done in 2007 indicated that 3.1% or one out of every 33 of the MSM community were HIV-positive. This was one of the lowest prevalence rates in Asia, dwarfed by numbers gathered in similar studies in Taiwan (8%) and Bangkok, Thailand (28.3%)
However, there was an enormous amount of stigma associated with being positive, with no employers or educational institutions publicly coming out to defend the rights of positive people to work alongside others in Singapore.
At the end 2009, a total of 4404 cases of HIV/AIDS had been diagnosed, out of which 3956 (89.8%) were males, and 448 (10.2%) were females. This translated to a HIV notification rate of 12 per 100,000 persons in 2009.
In 2012, another 469 Singapore residents were newly reported with HIV infection. About 93% of the new cases were males and 7% were females. This brought the total number of HIV-infected Singapore residents to 5,775 as at the end of 2012. 2,814 persons were asymptomatic carriers, 1,379 had or had had AIDS-related illnesses and 1,582 had died.
Sexual transmission remained the main mode of HIV transmission among Singapore residents. Of the 469 cases reported in 2012, 457 cases acquired the infection through the sexual route, with heterosexual transmission accounting for 47% of infections, homosexual transmission 45% and bisexual transmission 6%. Intravenous drug use (2 cases) accounted for 0.4% of infections.
Nearly 90% of all new cases reported in 2012 were between 20 to 59 years of age. Almost half were between 30 and 49 years of age.
Approximately 64% of all new reported cases were single, 25% were married and 9% were divorced or separated. 68% of the males were single, compared to only 22% among the females.
In 2012, 48% of the new cases already had late-stage HIV infection at the time of diagnosis.
45% of the new cases in 2012 were diagnosed during medical care, while another 34% were detected as a result of routine programmatic HIV screening. 14% were detected as a result of voluntary HIV screening. When differentiated by sexual transmission, a higher proportion of homosexuals/bisexuals had their HIV infection detected via voluntary screening compared to heterosexuals (25% vs. 4%).
In 2013, 454 new cases of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infections were reported among Singapore residents. This brought the total number of HIV infected Singapore residents to 6,229 as of end 2013, of whom 1,671 had died.
Sexual transmission remained the main mode of HIV transmission among Singapore residents. Of the 454 cases reported in 2013, 428 cases acquired the infection through the sexual route, with heterosexual transmission accounting for 40% of infections, homosexual transmission 46% and bisexual transmission 8%. Intravenous drug use (4 cases) accounted for 1% of infections.
Almost half of the new cases reported in 2013 were between 30 and 49 years of age.
About 94% of the new cases were males. Approximately 66% of all new reported cases were single, 23% were married and 9% were divorced or separated. 68% of the males were single, compared to 31% among the females.
In 2013, 41% of the new cases already had late-stage HIV infection when they were diagnosed.
About 46% of the new cases in 2013 had their HIV infection detected when testing was performed in the course of medical care provision. Another 25% were detected during routine programmatic HIV screening while another 20% were detected as a result of voluntary HIV screening. The rest were detected as through other types of screenings. When differentiated by sexual transmission, a higher proportion of homosexuals/bisexuals (30%) had their HIV infection detected via voluntary screening compared to heterosexuals (9%.
Data and charts
Females make up less than 10% of HIV infections in Singapore today. One wonders why this proportion is still relatively small compared to males, if the majority of infected males are heterosexuals. There are a number of possible reasons - firstly, most of the infected males are single, and may not have had steady partners in Singapore, contracting their infections overseas. Secondly it may be that many infected females have not been detected as it is likely that females do not consider themselves to be at risk of HIV infection, since they often do not have multiple partners, and therefore have not sought HIV testing.
- Ministry of Health, "Update on the HIV/AIDS situation in Singapore 2014",.
- Ministry of Health, "Update on the HIV/AIDS situation in Singapore 2013".
- Ministry of Health, "Update of the HIV/AIDS situation in Singapore 2012".
- Jeannie SH Tey, Li Wei Ang, Joanne Tay, Jeffery L Cutter, Lyn James, Suok Kai Chew, Kee Tai Goh, Annals of the Academy of Medicine, Singapore, Vol. 41 No. 5 "Determinants of Late-Stage HIV Disease at Diagnosis in Singapore, 1996 to 2009", May 2012.
- Roy Chan, Editorial in Issue 21 of The Act, "AIDS in Singapore: Is the worst over?".
This article was written by Roy Tan.