The HIV situation in the Philippines just got worse, with the National AIDS Registry of the Department of Health (DOH) reporting an “exponential increase” in the new reported HIV cases in the country. Over half (60%) of the cumulative infections were reported in the last three years alone; and from one new case detected every three days in 2006, the reported HIV incidence has increased to about one every two to three hours (or eight to 10 per day) in the first quarter of 2012.
Already, this has earned the country an unenviable position as one of only seven countries globally that registered over 25% increase in HIV incidence since 2001, even if the global trend is stagnation or even decrease in HIV infection rates.
Speaking at the 2012 National Dialogue on HIV and Human Rights, Renaud Meyer, resident representative (ad interim) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and chair of the UN Theme Group on AIDS noted that the “escalating HIV incidence in the Philippines has turned the epidemic in the country from bad to worse.”
“The Philippines is at a pivotal moment, and requires colossal effort towards achieving its goal of halting, if not yet reversing, the epidemic, and tip the balance towards a positive outcome. This underscores the need for collective action and shared responsibility among all stakeholders,” he said.
FIGURES IN FOCUS
In 2000, the reported total number of PLHIVs in the Philippines was only over 2,000. This has increased year-on-year, however, with 2012 figures expected to reach over 22,000. Worse, if the trend is not halted, the number could reach over 35,000 by 2015, according to the National Epidemiology Center (NEC).
According to Dr. Susan Gregorio, OIC/executive director of PNAC–Secretariat, also speaking at the National Dialogue on HIV and Human Rights, the drivers of the HIV epidemic in the Philippines include the continuing high prevalence of HIV among high risk groups, particularly MSM and PWIDs. Related to this is the noted high prevalence of unsafe behaviors among key populations at higher risk.
Also noted was the increasing numbers of vulnerable areas. In the past, only metropolitan areas were prioritized, but now, the NEC has identified over 70 vulnerable areas. To simplify, if in the past the spread of HIV was focused on metropolitan areas, particularly Metro Manila (and NCR as a whole), and Metro Cebu, among others; now, other areas have been identified as vulnerable to the spread of HIV.
Places included here are: the cities of Olongapo, Antipolo, Dasmarina, Batangas, General Santos, Butuan, Cagayan de Oro, and Lucena. Still others cited include: Santa Rosa, San Pablo, Calamba and Santa Maria in Laguna; San Jose del Monte and Santa Maria in Bulacan; Tagum and Panabo in Davao del Norte; Puerto Galera in Oriental Mindoro; and San mateo and Taytay in Rizal.
BEYOND THE NUMBERS
Meyer, however, stated that while “these are very worrisome numbers, let us not forget that HIV and AIDS are much more than statistics. Behind each number are stories of grief and sufferings of individuals, families and loved ones. A life afflicted by and lost to HIV and AIDS could be a father, a mother, a brother, a sister, a son, a daughter, a friend, a colleague.”
This is also because “it is widely recognized that stigma and discrimination fuels the transmission of HIV, and have greatly increased the negative impact associated with the epidemic. HIV-related stigma and discrimination create major barriers to preventing further infection, alleviating impact and providing adequate treatment, care and support to people who need it most,” Meyer added.
Touching on the discrimination, particularly of LGBTs, whose ranks include MSM and TGs, both considered as key populations in the spread of the HIV epidemic, Jonas Bagas, executive director of TLF Share Collective, said that the State needs to affirm its “obligation and commitment to protect and promote the human rights of all Filipinos.” This is because, he noted, there are instances when the Constitution is applied differently for LGBTs and those who are heteronormative – and these instances have been known to, unfortunately, affect the spread of HIV.
For instance, in the raids of bathhouses, frequently used as a reason for such is the presence of condoms in these places. “In (the police’s) mind, condoms are enough to prove that the establishment promotes gay sex, which for them is tantamount to prostitution,” Bagas said. Prostitution is, of course, not legal in the Philippines.
Such occurrences hinder HIV-related efforts, with many of these establishments foregoing giving out condoms in order for them to be used against them in cases of raids.
“Now, with the ‘fast and furious’ HIV epidemic among men who have sex with men and TGs, expect a wider dissonance between the text and spirit of the Constitution and what actually happens on the ground,” Bagas said. What is needed, he added, is the changing of the public perception about male-to-male sex. “We need our leadership to step up and speak out that we need to embrace gay sex as an integral part of our collective humanity, a legitimate basis to form romantic and sexual relationships. We need our political leadership to join us in saying that human rights are our birthright, that dignity is our birthright, that happiness is our birthright.”
MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE
According to Edu Razon, president of Pinoy Plus Association (PPA), the Philippines actually has AIDS-related anti-discrimination policies mandated by law. Particularly, RA 8504 mandates that compulsory testing shall be considered unlawful unless otherwise provided in the Act, PLHIV’s rights to privacy, and the assurance of the provision of basic health care and social services for individual with HIV.
He noted, nonetheless, that even with the presence of the mandate, evidences show a bleaker picture, with stigmatization and discrimination frequently happening. For instance, in the workplace, there have been cases of mandatory testing before or during employment; lack of confidentiality; and instances when PLHIVs were detained, isolated or quarantined. In communities, there have been cases when PLHIVs or their families were pressured to leave/forced to change residence; and instances when a PLHIV who died was denied of decent burial.
Worse is the non-availing of redress mechanisms even when discrimination is experienced.
For Razon, to best to deal with this situation, various steps need to be taken. These include the taking of concrete actions against HIV-related stigma and discrimination by including these in policies and practices; informing and influencing the national review of (the law, RA 8504); production of more IEC materials on the issue; and further education of PLHIVs, as well as key populations at risk for HIV infection.
Much remains to be done, and these need to be done collectively, said UNDP’s Meyer. “Each one of us has a crucial role and contribution for the improvement of the country’s HIV and AIDS response. Without concerted action, the goal of universal access will be impossible to achieve.”