Faces of HIV
It was the year 1984 when Filipinos were first confronted with HIV-AIDS as a public health issue. Dolzura Cortez was the first to come out publicly to say that she had AIDS.
In 1991, the young Sarah Jane Salazar followed suit and travelled the country to tell her story.
Their life stories were even made into movies portrayed by show biz stars.
But when they died, HIV and AIDS temporarily lost a public face, until 2009 when Wanggo Gallaga, the son of movie director Peque Gallaga, came out and admitted he had HIV.
Cortez, Salazar, Gallaga and now Gorriceta have hoped that with their daring, Filipinos will have a better understanding of the disease and that its rapid spread can be stopped.
HIV rising among males age 20-29
The latest data from the Department of Health, however, shows the contrary.
To date, there are five to six new HIV cases reported daily to the DOH AIDS Registry. This is a significant increase from an average of one case a day in 2006.
From 1984 till April 2011, a total of 6,669 cases have been reported. This is on top of the 12,000 estimated unreported cases, according to the DOH.
For the month of April alone, 171 cases were reported, an 11 percent increase compared to the same period last year. And of these new cases, three were reported as AIDS patients.
AIDS is diagnosed when the CD4 cell (the cell in the body’s immune system) count goes below 200.
Most of the cases were males, ages ranging from 17 to 60 years old. The 20-29 age-group had the most number of cases.
The most reported mode of transmission was sexual contact. And like in the case of Gorriceta, males having sex with other males was the main type of sexual transmission.
This type of transmission has far surpassed the number of cases of overseas Filipino workers or OFWs infected with the virus. Only six percent or 11 of the reported cases in April were OFWs.
Recent data have also shown a rapid expansion of HIV infection among people who inject drugs. Other modes of transmission include mother-to-child transmission, blood transfusion, and needle prick injuries.
“With this situation, we can see that the HIV epidemic in the country is swelling," said Health Assistant Secretary Enrique Tayag.
46,000 HIV infections by end of 2015
In 33 countries, HIV incidence fell more than 25 percent between 2001 and 2009, according to the UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic, 2010.
The report added that in seven countries, however, incidence increase was noted by more than 25 percent between 2001 and 2009. The Philippines is one of these seven countries.
The same report also said that without immediate action, HIV cases in the country are estimated to reach 46,000 by the end of 2015 from 6,015 cases reported as of end of 2010. [See related: HIV-AIDS cases in PHL to spike five-fold before Aquino's term ends — DOH]
But the Philippines actually did not lag in creating policies to address the rising HIV trend. The legal framework of the national AIDS response is Republic Act 8504 or “The Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control ACT of 1998."
So where does the problem lie?
As with many laws in the country, experts say, implementation is wanting.
A briefer on the Philippine HIV and AIDS epidemic issued by the Philippine National Aids Council states: A large segment of society - both national and local agencies - are still largely unaware of the law’s existence or are unsure of how to operationalize the provisions of the law. As a result, the law is hardly enforced.
Discrimination by health care workers and family members
R.A. 8504 is one of the world’s oldest laws on HIV and AIDS. It contains provisions seeking to protect people living with HIV from various forms of discrimination.
But more than a decade after the AIDS law was passed, HIV-AIDS patients continue to report what they regard as violations of the anti-discrimination provisions.
In 2010, Action for Health Initiatives (ACHIEVE), Inc., with support from Levi Strauss Foundation, conducted a study to assess the HIV-AIDS patients’ use of R.A. 8504.
According to the study, HIV-AIDS patients generally describe discrimination as “panghuhusga," which is about making biased, unfair judgments about how one contracted the virus, often in relation to one’s sexual behavior or kind of work.
Of the 103 valid respondents who have experienced discrimination, most of them (43.7%) said they have experienced discrimination at a health care facility, followed by discrimination at home (43.6%) with their family members as tormenters. Some also experienced discrimination in the workplace or in the community.
Based on the ACHIEVE study, most people living with HIV-AIDS in the country are aware that there is a law that protects them. In its study, 78 percent of the respondents said they do, yet only three of them used the law to seek redress and only two sought redress through the courts.
Most respondents cited fear of disclosure and further discrimination as the primary reasons for not seeking help. The lack of access to legal services, whether free or paid, is another.
Prolonging life with HIV
Currently, there is still no cure for AIDS or HIV. Vaccine research continues. What are available are anti-retroviral drugs called as “maintenance cocktails" that keep the virus from expanding inside the human body.
With these drugs and a healthy lifestyle, an HIV patient can prolong his or her life. Former basketball star Magic Johnson is perhaps the most famous example. Some have lived for as long as 20 to 30 years after being confirmed positive with the virus.
In other words, HIV is no longer considered an instant death sentence.
It is best to know of an HIV infection as early as possible so that treatment to prevent the virus from progressing can start.
Some of the symptoms include fever, swollen lymph nodes and throat, rashes and mouth sores.
San Lazaro Hospital provides free HIV screening and confirmatory tests. Code numbers are used to hide identities.
"No one is invincible and exempted from this virus," Assistant Secretary Tayag said as he urged Filipinos to undergo regular checkups.
He advised returning overseas Filipino workers to undergo HIV testing to ensure they did not contract the virus abroad. OFWs usually undergo HIV testing only when leaving the country because it is a pre-employment requirement.
But as early as 2008, the United Nations in the Philippines had identified Millennium Development Goal number 6 (Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Other Diseases) as among the MDGs least likely to be achieved by the country.
“We have realized that the attainment of this goal is challenged by low levels of knowledge, low coverage of prevention services, prevailing risky practices, and the continuing stigma and discrimination associated with HIV," said Dr. Jacqueline Badcock, U.N. Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in the Philippines during a candle-lighting ceremony at the DFA last May 25 in memory of those who have died of AIDS.