‘Philippines facing unprecedented HIV crisis’

By Sheila Crisostomo

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With new infections doubling in the past six years to over 10,000 new cases in 2016 alone, the Philippines is facing an “unprecedented HIV crisis,” the global medical journal The Lancet said yesterday. STAR/Miguel De Guzman, File

MANILA, Philippines - With new infections doubling in the past six years to over 10,000 new cases in 2016 alone, the Philippines is facing an “unprecedented HIV crisis,” the global medical journal The Lancet said yesterday. 

In its editorial, Lancet said “stigma” undoubtedly remains one of the major reasons for the spread of HIV in the Philippines.

“Stigma against PWID (people who inject drugs), lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and intersex people, and people living with HIV can and must be prevented,” the journal said.

“Early testing, access to reproductive health, sex education and anti-retroviral treatment should be facilitated. The Philippines must act today, or risk losing the fight against HIV,” it added.

The Lancet said the growing rate of infection stands in stark contrast to the absence of comprehensive public and health promotion policy to reach key at-risk populations.

The journal showed that in 2016, some 83 percent of new infections were among males who have sex with males (MSM) and transgender women who have sex with men (TGW), most of whom were between 15 to 24 years old.

And in 2015, half of MSM and TGW have used condoms, and less than one in five MSM and TGW were aware about their HIV status. 

“Education in safe sex is lacking. Only a third of 15- to 24-year-old MSM and TGW have correct knowledge about HIV transmission and prevention. Laws requiring parental consent for younger people seeking to purchase condoms further hinder protection of young at-risk populations,” the editorial read.

Lancet said the rate of new infections could be “underestimated.” It noted that President Duterte’s “harsh punitive policies” on drug use could have discouraged PWID from accessing HIV prevention and care.

A few years ago, the Department of Health (DOH) reported that PWID was a growing driver of the AIDS epidemic in the Philippines.  The rising number of cases of HIV among PWID was first observed in Cebu in 2007.

Lancet noted that “harm-reduction policies, such as needle exchanges, have largely been stopped for fear of censure, worsening risky behavior.” 

It cautioned that the Philippines has a “small window of opportunity to curb the rise of what is now the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Lancet urged the Philippine government to “convert this political call to action into implementation of tried and tested, community-led, effective harm reduction policies that can reach all at-risk populations.”

Pinoy Plus 

Owie Franco, president of Pinoy Plus, has confirmed that stigma is still a major hindrance to country’s efforts to curb the epidemic. 

Franco said many of newly-diagnosed HIV patients could not accept their condition immediately so they also deny themselves treatment, particularly the anti-retroviral therapy (ARV) which is being provided for free by the DOH

“They are in denial stage wherein the PLHIV (people living with HIV) are afraid to seek treatment because they still could not accept that they are infected,” he told DOH reporters.
Pinoy Plus is a group of Filipinos infected with HIV which has been helping the government in reaching out to infected individuals through peer counseling. They also help in educating the public on how to prevent contracting the AIDS virus.

Franco added many infected individuals also do not have the support of their family, thus discouraging them from coming out and seeking proper care and treatment.

Based on DOH data, there has been a 140-percent increase in yearly new cases from 2010 to 2016 or from 4,300 to 10,500, respectively. Eighty percent of these cases come from 117 high burden areas.

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