By Corina Oliquino | FilAm Star Correspondent
The United Nations and the Department of Health (DoH) have announced on August 1, that the Philippines has registered the fastest-growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Asia-Pacific Region in the past six years.
According to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS or UNAIDS 2016 report, the Philippines has recorded a 140 percent increase in the number of new infections from an estimated 4,300 in 2010 to around 10,500 in 2016.
The report also noted that the Philippines has become one of the countries accounting for more than 90 percent of the new HIV infections in the Asia Pacific region.
“If HIV programming is re-directed to focus on the people most at risk and where they are located, I’m sure the country can not only return to a stable situation but even end the AIDS epidemic as a public health threat by 2030,” Eamonn Murphy, Director of UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia-Pacific said.
Murphy have also added that the country has a “small window of opportunity” to act on the epidemic”.
In a report by The Philippine Star, majority of the 83 percent of the new HIV infections recorded for the Philippines in 2016 were among 15 to 24-year-old males who have sex with males (MSM) and transgender women who have sex with males (TGW).
The same data also showed that condom use among MSM and TGW rose from 36 percent in 2011 to 50 percent in 2015.
“Only 35 percent of MSM and TGW aged 15 to 24 had correct knowledge on HIV transmission and prevention. Meanwhile, the number of MSM and TGW who were aware of their HIV status by getting tested increased from 5 percent in 2011 to 16 percent in 2015, which is still relatively low,” the Philippine Star report read.
The UNAIDS report noted that the Philippine government has “re-tooled its program to expand HIV services for MSM and TGW, focusing in 117 cities where 80 percent of new infections have been reported.”
“The government has increased funding for the HIV program between 2013 and 2015. The DoH is now providing free anti-retroviral medicine to anyone who tests positive for HIV and other out-patient services to a maximum of PHP 30,000 per person annually.”
The report also cited the country’s three HIV treatment hubs in Metro Manila: Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), San Lazaro Hospital and Makati Medical Center.
UNAIDS also featured the country and the local government’s initiative to treat and detect HIV following the three new clinics in Quezon City providing HIV testing and counseling.
According to UNAIDS, Quezon City’s Klinika Bernardo, popularly known as the Sundown Clinic has significantly “increased investments in its HIV programs” by establishing three similar clinics in the city.
The UNAIDS report said the QC Government’s HIV initiative program has become a model for other cities in terms of rendering awareness and prevention for HIV/AIDS.
“We cater to men who have sex with men from all over the Philippines,” Leonel John Ruiz, head physician at Klinika Bernardo said.
“Only 40 percent of our clients are from Quezon City,” Ruiz added.
In a report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW), Dr. Rosanna Ditangco of the AIDS Research Group of DoH’s Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) said that the country’s HIV epidemic is a “national emergency” and warned that the government’s current approach to the epidemic means “we can’t control the rapid rise of HIV infection.”
“I don’t have high hopes anymore. We can’t control the rapid rise of HIV infection,” Ditangco said told Rappler.
“It is time the government treat HIV as a national emergency,” Ditangco added.
For its part, the DoH considered HIV as one of the government’s top health priorities.
“The DoH, together with the Philippine National AIDS Council, other government agencies, local government units, and partner civil society groups are determined and committed to halt the increase in the number of cases and start reversing the trend of the epidemic in five years,” DoH Sec. Paulyn Jean Ubial said.
For its recommendation, HRW suggests that the Philippine government step up its campaign to eliminate discrimination and stigma surrounding HIV-AIDS, according to the group; these two are the key factors in “discouraging or preventing key affected populations being tested or treated.”
The group is also urging the Philippine government to “remove current official obstacles to condom access and usage as well as ensure that schools include safer sex and HIV prevention education in the curriculum.”
Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act
The Lower House’s committee on health has approved a consolidated bill that seeks to “strengthen the fight against immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)” following the latest increase in statistics from the UN report.
The new consolidated measure is titled as the Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act.
“It further declares that the state shall uphold, respect, protect, fulfill and promote human rights and dignity as the cornerstone of an effective response to the HIV and AIDS epidemic,” Chairman of the Committee on Health and Quezon Rep. Angelina Tan said.
Under the measure, the Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC) will act as the central policy-making, planning, coordinating and advisory body on programs to combat HIV/AIDS.
PNAC will also be tasked to develop and implement a national HIV/AIDS medium-term plan with stronger collaboration from other agencies, civil society groups and other stakeholders.
The proposed measure will also ensure that acts and practices of “discrimination among HIV/AIDS-afflicted persons in the workplace and in learning institutions; restrictions on travel, habitation and shelter; exclusion from public, credit and insurance services; discrimination in hospitals and health institutions; denial of burial services and bullying will be prohibited.”
The Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act also prohibit “misinformation on HIV and AIDS, including false or misleading advertising in any form of media.”