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Special Report

HIV cases rising, their faces getting younger

/ 12:00 AM December 01, 2015

DAVAO CITY—Gary (not his real name) looks up from his bed inside an isolation room of Southern Philippines Medical Center (SPMC), an expression of deep anguish on his emaciated face.

“This is hell,” he said, as he looks out to the seething afternoon light through the glass windows. “The heat is killing me, I can’t stand it.”

The air-conditioning system in the room had long ago stopped working, and Gary was lying shirtless in bed, the ribs of his bony body rising and falling as he breathes. But the heat is just the least of his concerns.

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Gary and five others in the room are suffering from the advancing stage of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), the disease that brings down the body’s immune system, robbing it of its capacity to fight back. The room houses AIDS patients with highly communicable diseases; which means that Gary and the other patients are receiving treatment to stave off a host of opportunistic infections taking advantage of their weakening bodies.

Looking gaunt, their skeletal frame haunch in their beds, they are suffering from tuberculosis, pneumonia and swollen lymph nodes, making it so painful for them to eat.

Since 1993, when the first case of HIV was diagnosed in Davao City, the Department of Health (DOH) has already monitored 1,294 cases of HIV-positive patients in the region as of July this year, 124 of which developed into full-blown AIDS cases.

Rising incidence

Dr. Josephine Villafuerte, city health officer, said the number of people diagnosed with HIV had been rising through the years and their faces were becoming younger.

Compared to seven years ago, when the DOH used to monitor only one newly diagnosed HIV-positive in the country a day, the number this time swelled to nine in 2012, 17 in 2014, and 22 in 2015.

Although 39 percent or 270 of the HIV-positive cases registered in September this year are in Metro Manila, the 38 cases in the Davao region make up 5 percent of the country’s newly registered HIV cases, making it among the top five regions with the highest incidence of HIV.

The DOH reported a total of 80 people with AIDS who died in Davao region as of September.

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In the region, a total of six new cases monitored in July this year are youths from 15-24 years old, bringing to 71 the total number of HIV-positive diagnosed within this age bracket in the first seven months of the year alone.

Since 1993, cases of youths found positive with HIV in the 15-23 age grouping have reached 519 or 40 percent of the total in Davao City. Those in the 24-34 age grouping registered 599, or 45.74 percent of the total.

Sexually active

The two age brackets are still considered sexually active, Villafuerte said.

Cases among 35-49 years old were down to 152, with only two cases registered in July; and 23 cases in the first seven months of the year, and almost nil from 50 years and up.

Dr. Jing Ramiterre, chief of the CHO reproductive health and wellness center here, said the rising number of new HIV-positive diagnosed per day could mean that the government’s effort to increase people’s awareness of the risks associated with HIV must have yielded results as more people felt the need to have themselves tested and checked for the virus.

But she said the increase in risky behaviors among key population, including unprotected sex among the young while engaging in casual, multiple or frequent change of partners, could have also contributed to the increase in HIV incidence.

Online access

She also cited economic reasons among the factors that contributed to the rise in HIV cases in the region, as well as such factors as peer influence, and the social media, which make it possible to use the web to access potential partners.

Villafuerte said the young must be doing this without knowing the risks involved.

A health worker who refused to be named for lack of authority to speak on the matter, said he came upon the case of Junjun (not his real name) who, having been addicted to playing Dota, had agreed to have sex with a gay man in exchange of P20 for him to pay the Internet café fee.

Ramiterre said transactional sex debut, contributed much to the increased vulnerability of the young to HIV. “Most infections are transmitted through sex pa rin (as usual),” she said.

National figures

In the whole country, 213 cases or 31 percent of the total HIV cases monitored in September are youth within the age of 15-24 years; 95 percent of these cases were male.

The DOH reported that 99 percent or 211 cases in September were infected through sexual contact; and a large number of the total cases involved male-to-male sex partners.

From January 1984 to September 2015, a total of 7,536 or 27 percent of the reported cases were 15-24 years old. Ninety percent or 6,811 cases of all the youth were reported in the last five years.

The DOH noted a steep increase in cases among youth in 2008, when the 111 total number of cases was 171 percent higher than that in 2007.

From 1984 to 2002, more than half of the cases or 71 per cent among the youth were females, but in 2003, an equal number of males and females were reported. Since then, the trend reversed to male predominance.

Ninety-four percent or 7,107 of the cases reported nationwide were infected through sexual contact; of which, 947 were infected through male-female sex, 3,829 through male-male sex, 2,331 through sex with both males and females; and 369 were infected through sharing of infected needles.

Therapy

Of the 1,294 cases diagnosed in the Davao region, 1,170 or 90 percent remains asymptomatic, or are not yet exhibiting any symptom.

While antiretroviral therapy (ART) is already available for free at SPMC to extend the healthy life of patients diagnosed with HIV, most of those found in the advanced stage of HIV infection, like Gary, have not been aware they have been carrying the virus until it is already too late.

That is why, Villafuerte said, the government has been campaigning for increased awareness of the risks associated with HIV, to encourage more people to be tested.

The DOH reported a total of 60 people with AIDS who died in the Davao region as of July this year.

Cases of HIV infection are lower among the ages of 35-49 years old at only 152; with only two cases registered in July this year bringing to 23 the total number of cases in the first seven months of the year.

But the good news about early detection is the availability of ART to allow people living with HIV to extend their life on earth. Villafuerte said the youngest of those diagnosed with HIV in the region is a 13-year-old who got the infection from his mother. Thanks to ART, the child is living a normal life, just like other children.

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