Health advocates blame the sharp increase of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection among Filipinos on the Arroyo administration’s halting the distribution of free condoms through government hospitals and health centers.
Former Health Secretary Alberto Romualdez said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, on taking Malacañang in 2001, apparently gave in to pressure from Catholic leaders to stop the distribution of condoms as a way of preventing HIV infections in the Philippines.
HIV is the virus that causes the still incurable acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The Catholic Church opposes the use of condoms, even for preventing the dreaded disease.
But the Department of Health (DOH) endorses the use of condoms as a means to prevent the spread of HIV.
Romualdez, secretary of health during the Estrada administration, recalled that it was in 1997 when the US Agency for International Development (USAid) informed the Philippine government of the plan to phase out donations of reproductive health (RH) supplies, including condoms, to developing countries.
“But USAid gave us a timetable. And the DOH said, ‘It was okay, we’ll start our own procurement so that supplies would not run out,’” he said.
“Unfortunately, we changed leaderships in 2001 and the new (administration) under the influence of the Church put an embargo on the procurement of (reproductive health) supplies by the national government,” Romualdez said in an interview after a forum on HIV/AIDS in the Senate hosted on Monday by Sen. Pia Cayetano, chairperson of the health committee.
Romualdez said it was during the gradual phaseout of USAid donations from 2001 until 2006 when the incidence of HIV rose steeply.
Since the Arroyo administration refused to procure condoms for HIV prevention, Romualdez said the DOH had to rely on a separate donation from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) “which was a smaller (volume) compared to what the need (was).”
“That’s the connection. It was in 2001 when the procurement stopped, so the government was not able to (replenish) the products that were being phased out by USAid and other donors. In 2006, when the supplies finally ran out, the incidence of HIV began to climb,” he said.
“The purchase order (for condoms) was disapproved. It was stopped because of pressure from the Church. An embargo (was imposed) on all kinds of RH supplies,” Romualdez stressed further.
“It is only now under the (Aquino) administration when it started again. But the procurement that we started (during the Estrada administration) stopped,” he said.
Romualdez stood up at one point during the Senate forum and noted from the presentation made by DOH Assistant Secretary Eric Tayag, head of the National Epidemiology Center (NEC), that the incidence of HIV infection shot up in 2006 just about the time supplies ran out.
Figures from the NEC showed that from 1997 to 2001, HIV incidence in the Philippines was less than 1,000 cases a year.
Tayag showed a graph indicating that from 2002 to 2006—the early years of the Arroyo administration—the annual incidence of HIV infection increased to more than 1,000 and then grew by 668 percent from 2007 to 2012.
Tayag’s presentation also showed that from one new case of HIV every three days in 2000, the DOH recorded one new case a day in 2007.
In 2010, the department recorded four new cases a day that later increased to seven new cases after a year.
At present, the DOH lists nine new cases a day of HIV infection, most of which occur in men who engage in sex with other men (MSM).
Romualdez said it was in 2006 when the annual increase rose to 26 percent from only 18 percent in 2005 and 17 percent in 2004.
The DOH has reported 295 new cases of HIV-AIDS in the country for the month of October, almost double in the same period last year.
Records from the NEC showed that 93 percent of the cases were men aged between 15 to 56. Of the total, 22 were confirmed as AIDS cases, all of which involved men.
In his Twitter account, Tayag said more Filipino males were including condoms in their “daily wardrobe” as the health agency projected an increase in the prevalence of HIV-AIDS among men.
The latest DOH report showed that at least 286 cases were contracted through unprotected sex, with men having sex with other men as the “predominant type of sexual transmission.” The mode of transmission for the rest of the cases was needle-sharing among drug users.
Of the total new cases monitored in October, almost half or 137 cases, were from Metro Manila.
HIV leads to AIDS, a condition in which the body’s immune systems are attacked and damaged by the virus, ultimately leading to death.
Since 1984, the health agency has recorded a total of 9,995 asymptomatic cases and 1,130 AIDS cases. No new deaths were reported in October.
In the Senate, Romualdez said that during the Estrada administration, the DOH distributed condoms for free in areas with populations known to engage in MSM and other “risky sexual behavior.”
Tayag’s report also included the following:
In MSM cases, the NEC reported that 45 percent of those who were infected with HIV said condoms were “not available” at the time of infection; 27 percent said they did not like to use condoms; 11 percent said their partner objected; 11 percent thought condom use was “not necessary”; 3 percent “forgot” to use condoms; another 3 percent said they did not know how to use condoms and 1 percent said condoms were “too expensive.” With a report from Jocelyn R. Uy