“We have to do more than what we’re doing now.”
This is the gist of the message of JVR Prasadao Rao, the United Nation Secretary General’s Special Envoy for HIV and AIDS to Asia and the Pacific, as the Philippines continues to come to grips with the worsening human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) situation of the country.
Already, the Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC) classified as “fast and furious” the rising rate of HIV cases in the Philippines, considering that in the last four years, the increase in HIV cases in the Philippines was pegged at 523% (from 2008 to 2012). There are approximately 14,000 identified HIV cases in the country, though the figures could be higher, considering that many people choose not to get tested, or are unaware that they may have been exposed to HIV. For the month of July alone, the PNAC recorded 449 new HIV cases.
It is estimated that one new Filipino is getting infected with HIV every one hour and 25 minutes.
“The Philippines has done right in identifying (key) programs, (such as) programs in identifying the key affected populations (KAPs), programs on treatment, and all the other important component program,” Rao said in an exclusive Outrage Magazine interview. “But the question is on the scaling up (of these programs). We have to do more than what we’re doing now.”
Rao also called for the need to change in the way HIV is considered.
“It is a popular misconception that HIV is a health issue,” Rao said. However, “HIV is a larger developmental issue that deals with human behavior (such as) with men having sex with other men, and injecting drug use. And because it is a larger issue, it should be dealt with from the developmental point of view. Because if not, it could only worsen.”
Rao said that HIV “can even be a security issue – in fact, it is the only health issue that the Security Council of UN tackled. This shows the uniqueness of HIV.”
As early as 2000, the UN Security Council came up with Resolution 1308 to highlight AIDS, and the emergency situations and potential damaging impact of HIV on the health of international peacekeeping personnel. In 2011, it adopted Resolution 1983 that recognized that “HIV poses one of the most formidable challenges to the development, progress and stability of societies and requires an exceptional and comprehensive global response.”
“We need to treat HIV as a multi-sectoral development issue,” Rao said, stressing that in dealing with HIV, “everything is concerned – from education, social welfare, labor, employment… all of them should be a part of this, not just the health department.”
Of the total number of reported HIV cases in the Philippines, 95% are among men who have sex with other men (MSM). The remaining percentage includes people who, while injecting drugs, share injecting equipment. Members of KAPs, however, are not always included in the development of policies concerning HIV – for instance, sex workers, those who inject drugs and MSM are “often criminalized and who stay in the background all the time,” Rao said. “I think the populations and the people who are more vulnerable (to HIV)… their voice has to be more strongly felt in the programs. Right now, they are completely underground; they don’t come out and speak.”
Rao added that “we can’t wait for the day when they are decriminalized. They should be treated as patients and not as offenders under the law. They should be given access to basic health services because the right to health is the paramount right. It is part of the right to life that overrides everything else. So we cannot allow a person to get infected and die of HIV when we have the tools to see that it can be prevented. With this argument, we have to provide tools to prevent the spread of HIV, such as the provision of clean injecting needles.”
For the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the Philippines – where many of the MSM fall into – Rao believes there is a need to help its members become part of the population. “The LGBT community needs an identity so that (LGBT people) become part of the population,” he said. This could come in all documentation, such as in the passport or the national identity card, where LGBT people need to be given the right to identify how they perceive themselves to be (as man, woman, and other). “This is an important starting point to build the self-esteem of the members of the LGBT community; and this is a good starting point to give them identity so they feel they are part of the community.”
Rao also encourages LGBT people to “come to the government with specific requirements. Organize as a group to implement interventions. Decide on what you want, and demand for these.”
For Rao, to help minimize – if not completely eradicate – HIV in the Philippines, “we should start early now. Filipinos need to realize the importance of controlling HIV at this stage. Because if we delay, it gets to the general population, and when it gets to the general population, it becomes harder to control it. So act now,” he ended.