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Chong: Living with HIV as a second chance at life

When Chong was diagnosed to be HIV positive in November 2015, he was initially devastated. But he gathered himself and – after re-evaluating – saw what’s most important. “Being HIV positive is not end of the world. We have this because there’s a reason behind it. We should give more importance and value the second life that God gave us. Be responsible and be happy no matter what. Life goes on,” Chong says.

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This is part of “More than a Number”, which Outrage Magazine launched on March 1, 2013 to give a human face to those infected and affected by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the Philippines, what it considers as “an attempt to tell the stories of those whose lives have been touched by HIV and AIDS”. More information about (or – for that matter – to be included in) “More than a Number”, email editor@outragemag.com, or call (+63) 9287854244 and (+63) 9157972229.

Chong was diagnosed to be HIV positive in November 2015. “I got myself tested due to frustration,” he recalled. “My ex-partner passed away (from pneumonia and brain abscess) that month, and so I decided to get myself tested. I’m pretty sure I got infected by my ex-partner.”

Upon knowing his HIV positive status, “at first, I was so, so shocked. Parang gumuho ‘yung mundo ko, mga pangarap ko nawala (It was like my world crumbled, my dreams disappeared) not only for myself but also for my family,” said Chong, who is the eldest child and is the breadwinner of his family.

But Chong’s situation somewhat bettered. First, he was able to disclose to select people, and these people have become his sources of support. “My Mom is always there for me,” he said. “And (then there are my) friends.”

On disclosing, Chong said “it felt so good na mailabas mo ‘yung kinikimkim mo or tinatago mo (when you re able to express what you hold back or hide). I’m so blessed I found friends na mas makakaintindi sa akin (who understand me better).”

Chong also already started taking antiretroviral medicines; and “although recently nagka-problem ako because nagka-fever ako (I had a problem because I became feverish), but my doctor decided to change my meds, and now I’m hoping for a better response.”

But Chong said that challenges continue. In his case, for instance, “my recent partner decided to let go of me. Nung nalaman niya nung una, tanggap niya ako. Pero dumating ‘yung time when he realized na di niya raw kaya ‘yung responsibility niya sa akin. To make the story short, hindi n’ya pala ako tanggap. ‘Yun ang nakakalungkot doon (When he first discovered my HIV status, he accepted me. But the time came when he said he realized he can’t bear the responsibility to be with me. That was sad),” Chong said.

But Chong wants to see the positive in this situation.

Siyempre masakit, nakakalungkot. Pero I realized na mas pagtuunan ng importansya ang sarili ko, ang family ko. Mas nagkaroon ako ng goal sa buhay ko na sarili ko, and ‘yung mga taong nag-stay lang sa buhay ko ang pagtuunan ko ng oras ko (Of course it was painful, it made me sad. But I realized to pay more importance to myself, my family. I ended up having a more definite goal for myself, and I realized to give more time to the people who chose to stay in my life),” Chong said. “May mga taong akala mo mas makakaintindi ng kalagayan mo, pero natutunan ko na sarili ko lang rin pala ang makakatulong sa akin (There are people you think will understand your situation, and then you learn that you only have yourself to rely on).”

Now coping with his new life, Chong wants to stay optimistic while looking forward.

“For me, being pozzy (HIV positive) is not end of the world. We have this because there’s a reason behind it. For me, mas pahalagahan at pag-iingatan na lang natin ‘yung pangalawang buhay na binigay ni God sa atin (we should give more importance and value the second life that God gave us). Be responsible and be happy no matter what. Life goes on,” Chong ended.

*NAME CHANGED AS REQUESTED BY THE INTERVIEWEE TO PROTECT HIS PRIVACY

Op-Ed

I may be HIV+ but that still doesn’t mean I’ll sleep with you

This is something every PLHIV needs to learn. That we are still “worth it”. Forget these notions of you being a “damaged good” or a “dirty person” or banalities given us along those lines. Because my HIV status is just one facet of my outrageous (and fabulous) personality; it does not define me.

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“I’m HIV-positive.”

That was the short sentence I remember telling this guy I used to date.

Okay – to backtrack – I met a guy while I was in Northern Mindanao. We dated for a while, and – at least I thought – things between us went smoothly for a while. I’d say he wasn’t bad-looking even if he looked somewhat common. He had one of those “if you stay long enough, I can teach myself to maybe even like you” face.

And then one night, we became more intimate than the usual. So I had to stop what we were doing (before we progressed further). And then – after prepping him up by first discussing with him his views about HIV and people living with HIV – I told him I had something important to tell him (if we were to advance what we had).

Thus that short sentence.

His face immediately changed; from what I saw was longing to… shocked. He couldn’t even say a word. And when he was finally able to utter a word, it was just to tell me that “I forgot I had to be elsewhere.”

The alibi was lame. But what made it more insulting was that I wasn’t even that into him to begin with; he was just a possible lay (if it came to that).

But that moment taught me two important things.

On one hand, how the sexuality of so many PLHIVs are tempered by their status.

I have frequently heard of medical practitioners who tell PLHIVs to “already stop having sex now that you’re HIV-positive; dadami pa kayo (you’d abet in increasing the number of PLHIVs)” – all too obviously unaware of safer sexual practices and U=U, among others. Worse, this sentiment is shared by a lot of PLHIVs themselves, who see their status as a “punishment”, and the only “cure” is to stop having sex altogether. Oh, please!

On the other hand, recognizing that being sexual doesn’t disappear (and doesn’t need to vanish) with being HIV-positive, there seems to be this supposition of PLHIVs being “desperate”.

That guy I dated, for instance, had every right NOT to have sex with me (it’s called power over one’s body); but that he had to lie just to get away from me was – to admit the truth – not only discourteous but even insulting. I suppose particularly because… I wasn’t even that into him.

Here’s the thing: Me living with HIV means just that – that I have HIV. But it doesn’t mean that I’ve lost my (yes!) sexual appetite and (for that matter) taste/preferences/standards on who to do it with.

And I believe this is something every PLHIV needs to learn. That we are still “worth it”. Forget these notions of you being a “damaged good” or a “dirty person” or banalities given us along those lines. Because my HIV status is just one facet of my outrageous (and fabulous) personality; it does not define me. And if (some) guys can’t see that, well…

Because remember dearie, just because I am HIV-positive still doesn’t mean I’ll sleep with you.

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POZ

CDC in the US releases recommendations for Covid-19 vaccine for PLHIVs

According to the CDC, “adults of any age with certain underlying medical conditions are at increased risk for severe illness from the virus that causes Covid-19.” It added that “mRNA COVID-19 vaccines may be administered to people with underlying medical conditions provided they have not had a severe allergic reaction to any of the ingredients in the vaccine.”

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With the Department of Health (DOH) still not releasing guidelines re vaccinations in the Philippines including of Filipinos living with HIV, eyes are turning – instead – to international bodies that already released recommendations for the same. One such body, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – released in end-2020 its “Vaccination Considerations for Persons with Underlying Medical Conditions”.

According to the CDC, “adults of any age with certain underlying medical conditions are at increased risk for severe illness from the virus that causes Covid-19.” It added that “mRNA COVID-19 vaccines may be administered to people with underlying medical conditions provided they have not had a severe allergic reaction to any of the ingredients in the vaccine.”

The CDC noted that PLHIVs were actually included in clinical trials, but “safety data specific to this group are not yet available at this time.” It saw fit to stress this point: “Information about the safety of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines for people who have weakened immune systems in this group is not yet available.”

Nonetheless – and this is worth stressing – because “PLHIVs and those with weakened immune systems due to other illnesses or medication might be at increased risk for severe Covid-19… they may receive a Covid-19 vaccine.”

Aside from v=being aware of the potential for reduced immune responses to the vaccine, those with weakened immune systems (including PLHIVs) should continue following all current guidance to protect themselves against Covid-19.

  • Wearing a mask
  • Staying at least six feet away from others
  • Avoiding crowds
  • Washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol
  • Following (CDC) travel guidance
  • Following quarantine guidance after exposure to Covid-19
  • Following any applicable workplace guidance
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POZ

Risk of developing cervical cancer is six times higher in women with HIV

Cervical carcinomas are usually caused by infections with Human papillomavirus (HPV), which are sexually transmitted just as HIV is. Based on the results of a new study, it can be assumed that an infection with HIV represents a risk factor for an infection with HPV.

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The risk of developing cervical cancer is six times higher in women who are infected with HIV.

This is according to a study from the TUM School of Medicine’s Center for Global Health and the chair of Epidemiology at the TUM Department of Sport and Health Sciences – “Estimates of the Global Burden of Cervical Cancer Associated with HIV” – that was published in the The Lancet Global Health.

According to WHO statistics, cervical cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer for women. In 2018 an estimated 570,000 women worldwide were diagnosed with cervical carcinoma, with approximately 311,000 of these women dying.

On the other hand cervical cancer, usually caused by Human Papillomavirus (HPV), is also one of the most successfully preventable and treatable types of cancer, as long as it is detected at an early stage and treated effectively.

Cervical cancer is at the same time the most frequently detected cancer for women who live with HIV, since their immune systems are weakened by the HIV infection.

Systematic review and meta-analysis of 24 studies

The lead authors Dr. Dominik Stelzle (Center for Global Health and Chair of Epidemiology) and Dr. Luana Tanaka (Chair of Epidemiology) conducted a systematic review as well as a meta-analysis of a total of 24 studies from the years 1981 to 2016, in which 236,127 women with HIV from four continents (Africa, North America, Asia and Europe) participated.

These studies covered a total of 2,138 cervical carcinoma cases. The results were linked with data from UNAIDS on worldwide HIV infection and with data on cervical carcinoma from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the WHO’s Cancer Research Center, and then evaluated.

“Until now there have only been estimates from countries with high net income levels,” says Dr. Stelzle. “That’s why we looked at the figures on global incidence of cervical carcinoma in connection with an HIV infection and included estimates for countries with low net incomes. In most parts of the world the numbers are under five percent. In some countries however we’re talking about well over 40 percent of cases.”

Risk is six times higher for women with HIV

The objective of the study was to calculate the share of women living with HIV among the number of women with cervical cancer. The authors found that 5.8 percent of all new cervical cancer cases worldwide in the year 2018 were diagnosed for women with an HIV infection. This is equivalent to 33,000 cases a year, 85 percent of which occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Furthermore, based on their results the team was able to show that women with HIV have a sixfold higher risk of developing cervical cancer than women without HIV infection.

“The association between cervical carcinoma and HIV is plausible,” says Prof. Andrea S. Winkler, co-director of the Center for Global Health. “Cervical carcinomas are usually caused by infections with Human papillomavirus (HPV), which are sexually transmitted just as HIV is. Based on our results it can be assumed that an infection with HIV represents a risk factor for an infection with HPV.”

Based on the results, the TUM authors determined that women with an HIV infection have a significantly higher risk of developing cervical cancer. They also pointed out that this means that HPV vaccinations and early-stage cervical carcinoma screenings are of particular importance.

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POZ

How the vaginal microbiome may affect HIV prevention

With no effective vaccine for HIV, alternative strategies such as pre-exposure prophylactic (PrEP) drugs are necessary to prevent transmission. PrEP drugs are highly effective in preventing the acquisition of HIV infection in men, but they are much less effective at preventing HIV infection in women.

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Healthy Lactobacillus bacteria in the vagina are critical for women’s health, but the accumulation of additional bacterial genera can imbalance the vaginal ecosystem. Such an imbalance may result in bacterial metabolism of drugs designed to prevent HIV infection, thereby decreasing their effectiveness and enhancing risks to women.

This is according to a study published in the open-access journal PLOS Pathogens by Dr. Nichole Klatt of the University of Minnesota Medical School, and colleagues.

With no effective vaccine for HIV, alternative strategies such as pre-exposure prophylactic (PrEP) drugs are necessary to prevent transmission. PrEP drugs are highly effective in preventing the acquisition of HIV infection in men, but they are much less effective at preventing HIV infection in women.

Recent evidence demonstrates that vaginal microbial communities are associated with increased HIV acquisition risk and may impact PrEP efficacy. To better design and conduct clinical studies assessing HIV prevention in women, it is essential to understand how microbes in the female reproductive tract affect therapeutic drug levels.

In the new study, Klatt and her colleagues investigated how vaginal bacteria alter PrEP drug levels and impact HIV infection rates using cervicovaginal lavage samples from women with and without bacterial vaginosis (BV) – a highly common syndrome in women that is caused by bacteria that can induce itching, discharge and discomfort, and has been associated with increased sexually transmitted infections and negative reproductive tract outcomes in women.

However, current treatments for BV frequently fail and recurrence is common. The researchers found that bacteria associated with BV – but not healthy Lactobacillus bacteria – can metabolize PrEP drugs and may potentially reduce PrEP efficacy due to reduced levels of available preventative drug. According to the authors, better measurements and interventions for bacterial vaginosis will be critical for improving the efficacy of HIV prevention efforts in women.

Dr. Klatt highlights, “women’s health, and factors that contribute to health and disease prevention in women are grossly under studied. This study demonstrates the critical need to develop better treatments for bacterial vaginosis, and in general, to promote more studies of women’s health.”

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POZ

Dep’t of Health dispenses newer HIV drug in the Phl

The Department of Health (DOH) is introducing LTD (lamivudine, tenofovir, dolutegravir) in the country.

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Took them long enough…

Xander (not his real name) has been HIV-positive since December 2012; and from the very first time he took his antiretroviral (ARV) medicines, “it has always been LTE (for lamivudine, tenofovir, efavirenz),” he said.

There have been adverse side effects – e.g. “At night, my dreams are so vivid I am unable to distinguish what’s real or what’s not,” Xander said, adding with sadness that “the doctor just told me to ‘Drink more water!’ as if that’d solve my problem.”

Those like Xander may now have their ARVs changed, with the Department of Health (DOH) introducing LTD (for lamivudine, tenofovir, dolutegravir) in the country.

This December, the Global Fund for treatment of people living with HIV (PLHIV) donated 197,260 bottles of LTD. The stock is being managed by the DOH’s Disease Prevention and Control Bureau – National HIV, AIDS and STI Prevention and Control Program.

The first tranche of 98,630 bottles were already allocated to various Centers for Health Development, while the last tranche (98,630 bottles) are expected to arrive in the country before the end of the year.

In an advisory signed by Undersecretary of Health Dr. Myrna Cabotaje, the DOH stated that based on the National Plan for LTD Introduction, the new ARV will be introduced from now until December 2021. These sub-populations of PLHIVs can benefit from LTD:

  • ART-naive adults, adolescents and children (30 kg and above), excluding TB patients on rifampicin-based regimen
  • PLHIVs on LTE with severe adverse events (dizziness, insomnia, abnormal dreams, anxiety, depression, mental confusion, convulsions, hepatoxicity, severe skin and hypersensitivity reactions and gynecomastia)
  • Patients with treatment failure to zidovudine (AZT) and abacavir (ABC)-based regimens

Xander knows he has to broach his concerns to the doctor in his treatment hub again to ascertain if he can shift from LTE to LTD. And “the DOH really took its time,” he mused, adding that hopefully, “this is just one of the steps wherein Filipino PLHIVs actually already start being able to access life-saving HIV meds already widely available in more developed countries.”

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Even with limited HIV services due to Covid-19, Phl reports 21 new HIV cases per day

Even with Covid-19 affecting the delivery of HIV-related services, the country is still reporting 21 new HIV cases per day. In October 2020, there were 735 new HIV-positive individuals reported to HARP.

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AIDS: The other pandemic.

Even with Covid-19 affecting the delivery of HIV-related services – that were already problematic even pre-pandemic – the country is still reporting 21 new HIV cases per day. This is according to the latest (for October 2020) report from the HIV/AIDS & ART Registry of the Philippines (HARP) of the Department of Health’s (DOH) Epidemiology Bureau.

Specific to October 2020, there were 735 new HIV-positive individuals reported to HARP; and 21% (153) of them had clinical manifestations of advanced HIV infection at the time of testing.

MEN IN MOST CASES

A big chunk of the newly infected are still male; and not just members of the LGBTQIA community, it must be emphasized.

Ninety-six percent (704) of the reported new cases were male. The median age was 28 years old (age range: 3-60 years old). More than half of the cases (52%, 379) were 25-34 years old and 28% (204) were 15-24 years old at the time of diagnosis.

More than a third (40%, 295) were from the National Capital Region (NCR). Region 4A (20%, 146), Region 3 (16%, 121), Region 6 (7%, 54), and Region 12 (5%, 36) comprised the top five regions with the most number of newly reported cases for this reporting period, together accounting for 88% of the total cases.

Sexual contact remained as the predominant mode of transmission or MOT (99%, 725). Among the newly reported cases infected through sexual contact, 60% (437) reported transmission through male-to-male sex, 28% (200) through males who have sex with both males and females, and 12% (88) were through male-to-female sex.

There were nine cases (1%) that had no data on mode of transmission.

YOUTH AND HIV

Even if there are less HIV services, trends noted in the past continue – e.g. youth continue to be greatly affected by HIV.

In October 2020, 204 (28%) cases were among youth 15-24 years old; and 94% of them were male. Almost all (99%, 201) were infected through sexual contact (20 male-female sex, 136 male-male sex, 45 sex with both males & females), and 1% (3) had no data on the MOT.

Children (<10) and adolescents (10-19) were also infected.

There were 27 newly diagnosed adolescents. Of these, six were 15-17 years old and 21 were 18-19 years old. All newly reported adolescent cases were infected through sexual contact (five male-female sex, 20 male-male sex, two sex with both males and females ).

Further, one child was diagnosed with HIV in this reporting period was infected through vertical transmission (formerly: mother-to-child transmission).

HIV AMONG OFWs

Fifty-four Filipinos who worked overseas within the past five years, whether on land or at sea, were newly diagnosed in October 2020. They comprised 7% of the total cases for this period. Of these, 93% (50) were male.

All of the male cases were infected through sexual contact (eight male-female sex, 27 male-male sex, and 15 sex with both males and females).

The ages of male OFWs ranged from 23 to 54 years (median: 33 years). More than half (54%, 27) of the male cases were 25-34 years old at the time of testing and 36% (18) were 35-49 years old. Among the four female OFWs, all where infected through male-female sex.

Seventy-five percent (3) were 25-34 years older at the time of testing and 25% (1) were 35-49 years old. The age range among diagnosed female OFWs were from 27 to 35 years (median: 32 years old).

PREGNANT WOMEN LIVING WITH HIV

Still in October, 13 were reported pregnant at the time of diagnosis. Five cases each were from NCR and Region 4A; and one case each from Regions 3, 10 and 12.

Reporting of pregnancy status at the time of diagnosis was included in the HARP only starting year 2011. From January to October 2020, there were 85 HIV positive women reported pregnant at the time of diagnosis. Of these, 35% (30) were from NCR, 22% (19) were from Region 4A, 16% (14) were from Region 3 and 27% (22) were from the rest of the country. The age of diagnosis ranged from 15 to 45 years old (median age: 25).

TRANSACTIONAL SEX

In October 2020, 13% (93) of the newly diagnosed engaged in transactional sex. Ninety-nine percent (92) were male and aged from 19 to 57 years old (median: 30 years). Fifty-two percent (48) of the males reported paying for sex only, 29% (27) reported accepting payment for sex only and 18% (17) engaged in both. Further, there was one female aged 23 years old who had engaged in transactional sex and was reported to have accepted payment for sex only.

People who engage in transactional sex are those who reported that they either pay for sex, regularly accept payment for sex, or do both. Reporting of transactional sex was included in the HARP starting December 2012.

TREATMENT FOR PLHIVs

In October 2020, there were 579 patients who were initiated on ART. The median CD4 of these patients upon enrollment was 153 cells/mm3.

To date, a total of 47,013 PLHIVs are on ART. This is only a little more than half of the total 81,169 HIV cases in the country as of end-October.

Most (96%) of those using ART are males. The age of reported cases ranged from 1 to 79 years (median: 31 years old). Ninety-five percent were on first line regimen, 4% were on second line, and 1% were on other line of regimen.

DEATHS AMONG PEOPLE WITH HIV

Perhaps the number of deaths among PLHIVs highlight the under-reporting in the country as far as HIV is concerned. Since data was gathered in January 1984, only 4,444 deaths were reported, and the real figure may be much higher though affected by both under- and non-reporting.

In October 2020, specifically, there were 248 reported deaths due to any cause among PLHIVs. Ninety-six percent (238) were males. One case (<1%) was less than 15 years olds at the time of death, 29 (12%) cases were 15-24 years olds, 109 (44%) were 25-34 years olds, 79 (32%) were 35-49 years olds, and 27 (11%) were 50 years and older.

Ninety-five percent (235) of the cases were reported to have acquired the infection through sexual contact (37 through male-female sex, 124 through male-male sex, 74 through sex with both males and females), 3% (7) through sharing of infected needles, and <1% (1) were infected through mother and child. Five (2%) reported deaths had no data on MOT.

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