Epidemic – this is the state of HIV or human immunodeficiency virus in the Philippines.
In May, the Department of Health (DOH) released a study, “The State of the Philippine HIV Epidemic” tracing the infection behavior in the country from its commencement in the 1980s up to December of last year.
Astounding numbers were seen in it, validating its now-epidemic branding, as around 56,000 Filipinos are currently infected with the virus. If not controlled, this may balloon to 142,000 by 2022.
The most common denominator of the cases is from male-to-male sexual intercourse. Though this practice is still the most rampant today, other factors such as mother-to-child transmission and transmission through drugs are also arising.
However, the most worrying fact of the study is majority of the cases were found among 15- to 24-year-olds. This average is a huge markdown from the 39- to 49-year-old average in 2001 to 2005, and 25- to 34-year-old proportion in 2006.
Dr. Rontgene Solante, Internal Medicine-Infectious Disease of ManilaMed, said this shift can be attributed to the more liberal behavior when it comes to sexual intercourse.
“Sabi nga naming generational, eh. […] One, they engage with multiple partners; number two, they don’t protect themselves by wearing condoms,” he shared.
Though the government, private hospitals, and advocacy groups have been creating information drives to disseminate awareness and prevention for the disease, cases are still increasing by the year.
The use of condom is the safest way to avoid HIV, according to experts, followed by avoiding multiple partners. However, only a few have been abiding by these.
“The awareness is there, but [the youth and the infected] are not practicing safe sex,” he said.
Solante added one way to counter this is education at home. Parents of his patients confessed that they do not have any extensive ideas about the disease, which makes it more difficult to warn the children themselves.
Firstly, sex, homosexuality, and other related topics are taboo topics in Filipino families. The curiosity among the youth are sometimes answered outside the home as a consequence on the silence surrounding these topics.
With that, boys as young as nine years old and girls as young as 11 years old are already engaging in sexual intercourse, according to a population study conducted by the University of the Philippines.
This can be the clue as to when to start opening topics such as sex and HIV to children.
Dr. Solante pointed out that when discussing such topics, it is important to come from an objective point of view by seeking information from reliable sources such as science books, doctors and other experts, and websites like UNAIDS, Avert, Medical News Today, and AIDS Info.
As per education, the Philippine Society for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases and other groups have formed a signatory stipulating the introduction of safe sex in the high school level, and the incorporation of sexually transmitted infection lessons in the college level.
However, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines is disallowing sex education, especially in the elementary level, as it “will lead youth to culture of contraception and promiscuity.”
“We gave [Commission on Higher Education and the Department of Education (DOH)] the module on what they should teach about sex education, then they’ll be the ones who will harmonize if a certain content is safe to be taught to children because those are very critical issues,” Dr. Solante said.
Prevention, screening, and cure
Medical advances have made it possible for carriers of the virus to extend their lifetime. At present, the most reliable treatment is the antiretroviral therapy (ART).
ART is advisable to be administered during the early stages of HIV, and to be continued for lifetime. Dr. Solante says he has patients who have been doing the treatment for over 50 years, extending their lifespan just the same.
ART can also suppress the virus levels to 0 and has to be taken continuously to prevent recurrence. Zero level can enable people to procreate and engage in sexual relations.
On the other hand, DOH encourages those who engage in the risk factors to get tested and do it every six months.
Currently, government centers and hospitals are giving screening tests and the ART for free. One of their goals is to extend this nationwide.
“We trained medical technologists all over the country to be proficient in HIV testing, which means that both private and public hospitals can now do the tests [proficiently]. If you will be in Naga, Davao, Ilo-ilo, if you go to a clinic, chances are you can access HIV testing,” he said.
“Anybody who feels at risk can go to the clinic,” he added.
Only three HIV treatment hubs were present during the start of ART in the country, but DOH has now ballooned it to 32 nationwide.
Additionally, they also tapped social hygiene clinics, clinics located inside local health centers, which aims to screen commercial sex workers and those who engage in male-to-male sexual intercourse.
As for prevention, DOH has been endorsing the “A-B-C” preventive method – A for “abstinence” or delay of sexual debut for youngsters, B for “being faithful” to one’s partner, and C, considered as the last resort, the use of “condom” in sexual intercourse.
HIV and sex do not have to be a little too sensitive of a topic at home because things as such can be approached educationally, especially if it will benefit your children and those around them.