Despite new law, HIV cases rising
(Third of a series)
MANILA, Philippines — Even before the nurse handed “Patrick” the results of his HIV test, he knew it would say that he had contracted the human immunodeficiency virus.
He knew this was the consequence of the decision he made three months prior, when he agreed to have unprotected sex with his then longtime partner, who was then already infected with HIV.
“I was blinded by love,” Patrick told the Inquirer when asked why he knowingly had unprotected sex.
He said that at that time, even if he was already working as a private nurse, his partner would badger and accuse him of seeing someone else because of his partner’s condition.
In an effort to end all the doubts, he told his partner on that fateful night in 2017: “Infect me.”
“It was because of love,” Patrick declared. “I saw him as the person whom I was going to spend my lifetime with. I was ready at that time. I knew what I was doing.”
Such risky sexual behavior was nothing new. It was evident as early as 2009, with a Department of Health (DOH) study finding that a high level of understanding and knowledge of HIV did not necessarily translate to a strict adherence to safe sexual practices.
According to Dr. Ferchito Avelino, a focus group discussion conducted for the study showed that sexual attraction is one of the key factors that explain why knowledge does not turn into action.
In April, the DOH’s Epidemiology Bureau saw 840 new infections in the Philippines, bringing this year’s total to 4,274 cases. The number is higher than the 3,226 and 2,471 cases recorded during the same periods in 2018 and 2017, respectively.
The majority of those newly infected in April are men, comprising 94 percent of all cases. More than half of those newly diagnosed, or 475, contracted the disease through male-to-male sex.
The number of rising cases has often been tied to the speed of finding, and accessibility of, sexual partners today due to social media and the abundance of dating apps.
Since January 2014, the total reported number of people with HIV in the country has stood at 49,827. The DOH recorded in April that 37,091 are taking the free antiretroviral medicine.
A viral infection, HIV attacks people’s immune system, making them susceptible to opportunistic infections such as tuberculosis. It can be transmitted through sex with an infected person or sharing of needles.
The rate of new HIV infections has been a cause of concern among health officials, especially because the most recent report by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS showed that between 2010 and 2017, the HIV epidemic in the Asia-Pacific region expanded the fastest in the Philippines, at 170 percent.
To deal with the HIV epidemic in the country, President Rodrigo Duterte signed early this year Republic Act No. 11166, or the Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act.
Apart from lowering the age of those who can have themselves tested from 18 to 15 years old, the law also ensures that vulnerable populations such as the youth are better informed of their sexual health.
Its education component mandates the integration in schools of “age-appropriate” discussions on HIV, anchored on human rights principles to reduce stigma and discrimination.
Parents will also be made to participate in “awareness-building seminars” for them to be knowledgeable on “gender-responsive and age-sensitive” HIV education.
RA 11166 also provides that no people with HIV should be denied private health insurance or life insurance just because of their condition.
It also sets stiffer penalties for violators, like those who would discriminate against PLHIVs: Imprisonment may last for up to five years and fines may be set to up to P500,000.
If you are loved…
Despite all that, however, Avelino, the officer in charge of the DOH’s Epidemiology Bureau, admitted that the government could only do so much to curb the spread of HIV.
“The biggest part of the intervention is internal,” he said. “It [depends on] the person. [Even with all the interventions], if he doesn’t want to practice [safe sex], nothing will happen.”
Avelino raised the need for family members to not only strengthen ties but also to become more open with one another.
“Studies show that if you are loved and have a sense of belonging in the family, you won’t look [for these] outside of your family. But if you do, you become more responsible. There should be openness, with no malice, no judgment,” he said.
In the next couple of years, the burden of curbing the rising incidence of HIV in the country would not lie as much on the government, Avelino said.
“[It will be] more on the population subgroups,” he said. “They should make an effort [to protect themselves]. What’s happening now is reactive. They should acknowledge that they are at risk; [they should] acknowledge that the change should be coming from them, primarily, if the epidemic has to change.”
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