By Carlos H. Conde
The Philippine government observed what it described as the world’s first “AIDS Hour” on May 14. Department of Health Secretary Janette Garin said the awareness-raising event was “a concrete example of the Philippines doing [its] part in the global effort against HIV and AIDS.”
Raising awareness is a key part of tackling the Philippines HIV epidemic, now the fastest-growing in the world. But by omitting HIV prevention measures for men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSMs) and people who inject drugs (PWIDs), the AIDS Hour is the government’s latest missed opportunity to educate and assist people at highest risk of contracting the virus.
The government has rolled-out sound programs to address the epidemic, including expanding public access to free testing and establishing treatment centers. But it is failing to take effective measures to help reduce HIV transmission among MSMs and PWIDs. Reducing HIV transmission among MSMs – particularly those between 15-24 years of age – requires targeted education campaigns on condom use and safe sex. The government has ignored these approaches, failing to initiate a mass education program involving television and billboard ads promoting condom use and safe sex for the MSM population. The government has also not implemented an effective national education curriculum that teaches safe sex and HIV prevention to students.
The country’s HIV epidemic among PWIDs is concentrated in Cebu City. In 2013, a staggering 52 percent of people who inject drugs there were infected with HIV, up from 0.4 percent in 2007, according to the Philippine National AIDS Council’s 2014 annual report. Yet the government has criminalized the most effective strategy to reduce HIV transmission among PWIDs – access to clean hypodermic needles. The Dangerous Drugs Actcriminalizes the possession and distribution of drug paraphernalia such as syringes without a doctor’s prescription. The government scuttled a long-running clean needle program in the city in 2015. That prohibition encourages needle-sharing among PWIDs, which increases the risk of HIV transmission. Providing clean needles, experts and advocates agree, would be a key step in the right direction. Health experts warn that obstructive government policies are only worsening the epidemic, causing it to spill over into nearby towns and cities.
Awareness about HIV/AIDS is important. But the HIV emergency in the Philippines demands urgent action and making the so-far dangerously overlooked epidemic among MSMs and PWIDs a top priority.