One Filipino gets HIV virus every 1.5 hours, group says

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MANILA—The number of HIV cases in the Philippines is rising at a “fast and furious” rate, with the rise concentrated among males who have sex with males and people who inject illegal drugs or narcotics, according to the executive director of the Philippine National AIDS Council.

Ferchito Avelino told the House committee on health that one Filipino contracts the virus every one hour and 25 minutes. For July, there were 449 new reported HIV cases.

“We’re saying that this is fast and furious because in the last four years, we have seen that the increase in HIV cases in the Philippines was at 523 percent increase from 2008 to 2012,” Avelino said.

Avelino explained that this was not an epidemic among the general population, but said that that the increase within a certain segment of the population could be cause for concern.

“We are looking at a certain portion of the population who is now experiencing an increase in HIV cases amongst them… and all generalized epidemics start with a concentrated epidemic,” he said.

JVR Prasada Rao, UN Special Envoy on AIDS to the Asia and the Pacific, said that while the number of HIV cases was not a general epidemic, it could be an epidemic among a population subgroup.

Rao noted that the Philippines was  among countries with an increasing number of new infections.

“It is a matter of concern, I would say,” Rao told reporters.

Rao said the government needs to spend more resources focusing on the key population that has the most HIV cases, and try to control the epidemic spread.

Rao and Avelino both spoke before the House committee health on Wednesday to discuss the AIDS situation in the country.

According to Avelino, while the main modes of transmission of HIV are sex between men and the injecting of illegal drugs, he said that between these two groups, there are those who engage in sex with women and could likely transmit the virus. Thus, there should not be complacence, he said.

He said what contributes to the spread of the virus is the fact that not all of those who belong to the subgroup that is at risk of contracting HIV get tested. The number of those getting tested from the subgroups are less than 20 percent, he added. Those who are infected but don’t know it could spread the virus through risky behavior.

Furthermore, not all of those who get tested receive treatment, he said. Some of those who do get the test and learn that they are infected choose to go into hiding.

There are also those who refuse to be tested because they are in denial about their condition, and could contribute to the spread of the virus as well.

In the Philippines, there are about 14,000 identified HIV cases in the country, but there could actually be more people carrying the virus because there are those who do not get tested and are unaware of it.

Avelino  said there are 70 cities in the Philippines that need  to be prioritized when it comes to addressing the rising number of HIV cases, among them the National Capital Region, and the cities of Angeles, Cebu, and Davao. These are the areas where the most cases are being reported and the number of estimated key affected populations is highest.

“We need to prioritize and to scale up response in a more coordinated manner,” he said. “What’s important is our government, whether national or local, should lead in the response and be able to accept the fact that we need to do something and we have to do it fast.”

Education is a key strategy, he said.

He noted that while many people are aware of HIV, a much lower number actually understand it and how it is transmitted and how people can be protected from contracting it. Some people even believe it could be transmitted through mosquito bites, Avelino said.

“It’s important to have mandatory education and knowledge dissemination in the community,” he said.

In terms of the use of prophylactics, such as condoms, he said the intervention must be focused on where it should have the greatest impact, the communities or population group where the infection starts. Among them are those who have multiple sex partners and who frequently change sex partners.

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