Fact: Treatment is available for people living with HIV.
And if someone with HIV gets treatment, he/she does not need to die from AIDS-related complications.
And if someone also gets treatment, the antiretroviral treatment (ART) he/she uses reduces the HIV viral load in his/her blood, semen, vaginal fluid and rectal fluid to “undetectable level”. And get this: Evidence shows that individuals on effective antiretroviral treatment (ART) with an undetectable viral load cannot transmit HIV to others.
This is why treatment as prevention (TasP) is important.
So important, in fact, that the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines call for “test and treat” strategies to “initiate all people diagnosed with HIV on ART as soon as possible after diagnosis as a way to decrease community viral load and reduce the rate of new HIV infections”.
But in the Philippines, among the common reasons why TasP is NOT working is because of the failures of the service providers themselves.
Testing is picking up, yes. But even now, not even half of PLHIVs access ART.
But so many of the after-test services continue to be lacking.
Here are three (of the many) reasons why I think TasP and U=U won’t happen soon in the Philippines:
1. After people get tested, no one really knows what to do next.
In the past three days, I have been speaking with three people whose HIV rapid test results were “reactive”. Soon after the tests, they were basically “dumped” by their “counselors”/service providers. These three were basically left on their own – and, as two of them said, “ni walang flyer na binigay para sana alam ko man lang ano na ang gagawin ko (no flyer was even given so I would at least be guided on what to do next).”
You’d expect more from the center where they got tested, too – both are satellite treatment hubs of one of the country’s major treatment hubs; and one is (in)famous for its extremely well-funded “efforts” to supposedly stop the spread of HIV in the Philippines.
The way I see it: Centers without after-testing support should NOT exist.
Because I said this before, and let me say this again: “You can’t just test people and then – after finding out they’re reactive/positive – ‘dump’ them to become somebody else’s problem. Because if/when you do, your concept of service provision is too limited, and as such, you’re actually part of the problem you claim to be dealing with…”
2. Baseline tests are NOT covered by PhilHealth.
In the Philippines, the treatment, care and support (TCS) received by most people living with HIV (PLHIVs) are covered by the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation’s (PhilHealth) Outpatient HIV/AIDS Treatment (OHAT) Package. Specifically, to those who are enrolled in PhilHealth, P30,000 is allocated per PLHIV per year, or P7,500 every quarter.
The 2010 circular that guided the implementation of the OHAT specifically stated that “covered items under this benefit are drugs and medicines, laboratory examinations including Cluster Difference 4 (CD4) level determination test and test for monitoring of anti-retroviral drugs (ARV) toxicity and professional fees of providers.”
The revised OHAT Package released last June 2015 stated that “covered items under this benefit are drugs and medications, laboratory examinations based on the specific treatment guideline including Cluster of Differentiation 4 (CD4) level determination test, viral load (if warranted), and test for monitoring anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs toxicity and professional fees of providers.”
Meaning: baseline tests are NOT covered by the OHAT package.
In 2015, Outrage Magazine interviewed Dr. Rosanna Ditangco, research chief at The Research Institute for Tropical-AIDS Research Group (RITM-ARG), a treatment hub located in Alabang. She lamented that management issues come to play in the delivery of treatment, care and support (TCS) services to PLHIVs.
For instance, “the OHAT Package does NOT cover baseline tests yet”, including such baseline laboratory tests as CBC, chest x-ray, PPD and blood chemistry (i.e. lipid profile, BUN, Creatinine, FBS), and CD4 count.
Let’s call this out already: This policy is – in a word – idiotic.
You need ARVs to treat HIV. You can ONLY get ARVs if you get your baseline tests done. If you have no money to pay for these baseline tests, then say goodbye to ARVs. Sans ARVs, you’re as good as dead.
3. Many medical practitioners in HIV advocacy continue to not know much about… HIV. Or even if they do, they continue to be sources of HIV-related discrimination.
One of the (aforementioned) guys who only recently got tested for HIV told me that – when the attending doctor was informed that his CD4 count is 60 – he was sarcastically told: “Ha, good luck!”.
I saw for myself how one nurse told a PLHIV “not to have sex anymore, ever. Para di na kayo dumami (So your number won’t grow).”
Try bringing up U=U in the country, and among the staunchest deniers are those working in HIV advocacy. I remember one of them tell me before: “Magkakalat pa (You’re giving them excuse to spread HIV)!”.
I also know of doctors who won’t even touch people they suspect to have HIV – due to disgust or fear or whatever, I can only surmise…
And so here’s another fact: Unless these are dealt with, expect for the worst to come.