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Solons underscore value of voluntary HIV counseling, testing

Members of the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development, who are also the authors of the bill seeking to amend the AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998 (RA 8504), are calling on the Department of Health to consider more effective strategies in addressing the HIV epidemic in the country, instead of the agency’s proposal to make HIV testing compulsory.

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Members of the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD), who are also the authors of the bill seeking to strengthen the response to the expanding HIV epidemic in the country by amending the AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998 (RA 8504), are calling on the Department of Health (DOH) to enforce stricter and more effective strategies in addressing the epidemic, underscoring the importance of voluntary HIV counseling and testing, amid DOH’s proposal to make HIV testing compulsory.

DOH Sec. Enrique Ona flagged the plan to make HIV testing mandatory during the committee deliberations on the amendment bill held in February this year. His statement was met with overwhelming opposition from advocates. According to DOH’s latest statement, the department is working on the details for making HIV tests compulsory as a means to address increasing HIV cases in the country. Mandatory testing is prohibited by existing law and the decision to submit to HIV testing is left solely to the individuals taking the test as they are the ones who can tell if they are physically and emotionally ready for it.

Ako Bicol Party List Representative and bill co-author Rodel Batocabe said: “The DOH under Sec. Ona fought for the passage of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law, which is anchored on freedom of informed choice particularly in matters pertaining to sexual and reproductive health and rights. It would be such a setback if the agency imposes a procedure that is just sensitive and potentially life-altering. Let us not go back to the times when the word ‘democracy’ is meaningless. History has taught us that coercion or compulsion is never effective. I know that the DOH has the best intentions, but clearly this is not what the people want. The DOH must instead mobilize resources for massive information dissemination across all sectors.”

Latest figures from the Department of Health’s official passive surveillance system, AIDS Registry, show that 498 new individuals were diagnosed to be HIV positive. This is 415 percent higher compared to the same period five years ago.

“Experts are calling our HIV situation in the country fast and furious, probably to connote that the epidemic is outpacing the government’s response. This could mean that either our efforts are insufficient or our strategies are not tailored to the needs of our populations who are most-at-risk to the infection,” said bill author and PLCPD vice chairperson Rep. Teddy Baguilat.

“We may be one of only nine countries in the world which continue to see an expanding epidemic, making it impossible for the Philippines to achieve the MDG target of halting and beginning to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015. We need to adapt and take to heart the calls of our most-at-risk populations when we design our actions. This is why PLCPD is taking part in the multisectoral efforts to scale up the HIV response by ensuring that a responsive law is in place. This is one of our priority legislative agenda for the 16thCongress,” saidPLCPD executive director Rom Dongeto.

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