“Where might have we gone wrong?”
Jesus Ramirez, program and development manager of the AIDS Society of the Philippines (ASP), poses this question not only to himself but to this writer on a visit to their office in Quezon City. The past few days have kept him busy with celebrations marking the 20th year of the organization. ASP, the longest running NGO tackling the HIV/ AIDS issue, has conducted countless activities on education and awareness through the years, amid the challenges posed by finances, misconception, or apathy.
But there is no time to party or rest. Even though he is busy with the World AIDS Day observance on Dec. 1, he found time to sit with us as he interprets the latest data on HIV/AIDS prevalence in the Philippines—and to sound the alarm that, indeed, if the trend continues, we might be facing an HIV epidemic.
The Department of
Health’s (DOH) updated HIV/ AIDS Registry in the Philippines (HARP) declared 841 new cases last June 2016, which was nine percent higher compared to the same period last year (at 737). This is the highest number of cases ever reported in a month since 1984! While other countries have posted declining figures, the Philippines continues to exhibit a robust rise in the number of declared infections. Ramirez is afraid that in reality, “the actual number could be higher.”
‘It’s the person’
Ramirez knew this too well, and lamented that majority of HIV-positive identified cases were males who have had multiple partners or sexual encounters with both male and female. As there is no sign or symptom, the infected individual continues to engage in unsafe sexual practice, unknowingly infecting more in the process. He also revealed that the aversion to using condoms among males is still strong, despite repeated reminders of the dangers of multiple sexual partners and unprotected sex.
“They’ve been briefed many, many times. May dala-dala pang condom sa bulsa, pero kapag tinanong mo (They even carried condoms in their pockets, but when compelled to reveal) about what happens to them during drinking sessions, they admit that the packet stayed unripped in their pockets, forgetting to use them because they’d been too drunk or too careless,” he explained.
This must be one of the factors why there is a 230-percent increase of HIV transmission among the young key affected population (YKAP) from 2011 to 2015. The YKAP includes those as young as 15 years old who are most vulnerable because of high-risk behaviors, sometimes due to peer pressure.
What’s also alarming is the fact that sexual partners are now easy to find. More than half of the YKAP revealed that they have used social media or apps to find sex, which usually ends as “unprotected sex.” This also happens during “clan” meet-ups (a.k.a. eyeball parties), wherein participants are invited online for a night of drinking or swimming. Initially, it might seem like a harmless night-out until one is cajoled into joining orgies or having sex with strangers.
‘It’s the family’s role’
There is also a double standard on HIV/AIDS awareness even within the family. “Filipino parents are still uncomfortable about the idea of talking about sex with their kids, and vice versa,” he said. “This silence is making things worse.”
That is why those aged 12 to 25 years old often seek answers outside the home, or from friends and peers, or even the Internet where not all information is correct. Thus, they become more vulnerable and more likely to indulge in risky sexual behavior.
The stigma of being identified as HIV-positive and as a Person with AIDS (PWA) is also systemic. Families disown PWA-children, relatives shun them. Companies find ways to fire them. From clinics to hospitals, PWA’s suffer in silence and anonymity. Even in the cause of death, their real condition is “masked” with tuberculosis or pneumonia.
‘It’s the LGU’s responsibility’
But there is still hope. Ramirez is encouraged by the fact that some local government units (LGUs) have developed HIV awareness and AIDS education and treatment programs, some of them having partnered with the ASP in implementing them.
“Intervention is significant to stop the rise of HIV in the country, and it must start with the LGUs,” he emphasized, noting that it is cheaper to spend money on education programs than on retroviral medicines.
“It is not merely a health issue; it is also a political, economic and social issue. Monetize the cost of prevention and look at it as an investment and not as an expense, because the impact of having HIV is not only to the individual but also to the family, to the community.” “the actual number could be higher.”
The old adage “prevention is better than cure” still rings true to the HIV situation in the country. And until more intervention is done to address the rise of HIV infection especially among the youth, then there is still a long, arduous road to tread and a tough battle to fight.