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The Greatest Love of All

By Focus FeaturesNovember 26, 2016

Having to undergo HIV testing may be one of the most daunting decisions a person with an “adventurous” sex life might have to make at least once in a lifetime. A gamut of emotions always comes in tow as one awaits the results – regrets about not “playing it safe,” rejection by one’s family and relatives, getting eased out of work, slow degeneration, living life alone, etc. The possibilities are endless. And it is bleak.

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Know this one assuring fact, though: You don’t have to do it alone.

Community centers like Love Yourself aim to send out a message of hope – being HIV-positive is not the end of the road but the journey towards renewal and hope. It is composed of a group of volunteers that “aim to reach out to others to propagate ideas, attitudes, and practices that encourage loving oneself.”

It has a clinic that offers free, superior testing for individuals who want to be tested for the virus, complete with laboratory and medical experts who conduct the test with utmost anonymity. But more than being the deliverer of the “results,” Love Yourself is a five-year-old support center for people living with HIV, a majority of which belongs to the LGBT community.

Where love begins

Love Yourself is the brainchild of Vinn Pagtakhan, a nurse who was influenced by his mother and grandfather to give back to the community through volunteerism. Using the prize money he got for being awarded Nurse Of The Year by the Shorty Awards, he opened the first Love Yourself community center. Its vision was simple: the propagation of reproductive health education, specifically with HIV and STDs, among the youth and the LGBT community – sectors considered to be the most susceptible to these infections.

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In time, Love Yourself became a community center offering STD/ HIV testing in partnership with the Department of Health (DOH) and the Research Institute of Tropical Medicine (RITM), as well as counseling before and after every test. The center is powered by volunteers who share the same advocacies with Vinn, fueled by volunteerism.

One of the volunteers is Jumuel Titan, who has been offering his services for a year now, spending hours at the center before proceeding to his BPO work. “I believe that we can help lessen the spread of the disease through proper education.”

Counseling would be conducted by certified life coaches – individuals who, like Vinn, believe that HIV infection is more than just an infection but an amalgamation of misconceptions – from deep-seated stigma, attitudes to risky sexual behavior, confusion with one’s gender identity and personal insecurities.

How to love yourself

What sets apart Love Yourself is their holistic and innovative approach to wellness. Initially their testing was exclusive to men who have sex with men (MSM) but would later open to all individuals.

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The procedure, which doesn’t end with the testing and revealing of results, is usually done in three stages: Pre-counseling, blood extraction, and post-counseling.

In between pre-counseling and blood extraction, HIV awareness (HIV 101) is conducted, where FAQs about the disease are answered, debunking of myths (only gay men can contract HIV; HIV can be transmitted by kissing, use of same utensils, etc.), and mainly, assessing risk behavior, depending on the activity of each client.

During blood extraction, testing kits are used – a client’s finger is pricked and a few drops of blood are placed onto the test kit. Serum from the blood is then extracted for the final test. The whole procedure takes about an hour.

If a blood test show reactive (meaning there is presence of HIV in the client’s blood specimen), the results will be forwarded to the DOH’s STD AIDS Cooperative Central Laboratory for confirmatory testing. This could take a month.

Those who come out non–reactive on the other hand, are counseled on how to keep themselves negative from the virus by encouraging safe sex and a healthier, more conscious lifestyle. They are also encouraged to go back after six months for another round of tests.

Baseline testing can already be conducted at the Love Yourself clinics in Mandaluyong and Alabang, most of the time suggesting prophylaxis and Antiretroviral Therapy (ARV). If other STDs are detected, Love Yourself volunteer doctors prescribe treatment.

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There is certainly life after a sero-positive test result. Love Yourself counselors help prepare the newly diagnosed HIV-positive person transition to many lifestyle changes to prevent the virus from activating and spreading. By adhering to a strictly regimented antiretroviral medication and a healthier lifestyle, chances are the virus may become dormant. There are those who actually lead normal lives, without fear of it recurring or even infecting a loved one.

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So conquer your fear of the unknown, and protect yourself with the right knowledge of HIV – because, as the famous drag queen RuPaul would say, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

Love Yourself is a non–profit organization that works hand in hand with the DOH, the Philippine National AIDS Council, and supported by private groups such as Pilipinas Shell Foundation Inc. and A.C.H.I.E.V.E. For free testing, and information, visit www.loveyourself.ph.