The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which causes the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), infects one Filipino every one hour and 25 minutes.
Dr. Ferchito Avelino of the Philippine National Aids Council (PNAC), made the revelation Wednesday before members of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Health.
Avelino said that from 2008 to 2012, HIV cases in the country increased by 523 percent.
For the month of July alone this year, 449 new HIV cases were reported.
Avelino said HIV infection was most prevalent among men having sex with males (MSM), those who have multiple sex partners, and drug users who shared needles.
“The Philippine HIV epidemic is no longer low and slow. We are now experiencing fast and furious type of epidemic. The prevalence of the HIV infection has already exceeded the one percent figure in a sub group, which is the MSM. It is already five percent, a high figure because the benchmark for a certain subgroup is one percent.
Anything that exceeds one percent is considered as an epidemic,” Avelino told reporters after the House committee briefing.
“That is not an epidemic in general population, but we have to remember that all generalized epidemic start in concentrated areas,” he said.
Avelino said 70 cities across the country should get priority in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Most of the reported cases are in the National Capital Region (NCR) and in the cities of Cebu, Davao and Angeles, he said.
Making matters worse is that some MSMs also engage in unsafe sex with female partners which further speeds up the spread of the virus.
Avelino however admitted that the HIV statistics are not accurate and the number of infected individuals could be higher because there are only two testing centers in the country both of which are in Metro Manila.
As a result, blood samples from the provinces need to be flown to Manila, and there is a two to three week wait for the results.
Avelino said many people who are possibly infected do not have themselves tested.
“Those who submit to tests are less than 20 percent, so we have 80 percent who do not get tested,” he said.
“Of the 20 percent, 10 percent go back for results and only five percent have treatment. This is because there are those who go into hiding after they are informed of the result that they are HIV positive,” Avelino added.
The Department of Health (DOH) confirmed Avelino’s report, saying the data comes from the department’s National Epidemiology Center (NEC).
“The main problem I see is that although there are many who went to get tested for HIV, most people who find out that they are positive do not come back for treatment,” said Dr. Leonard Bellimac, the DOH’s program manager for HIV/AIDS.
Asked if Filipinos should worry about the rising number of cases, Bellimac said, “we should have been alarmed yesterday.”
He said the DOH has five programs to address this issue.
One is information dissemination to make Filipinos aware of HIV and what they can do to prevent acquiring the virus.
“The key to knowing the epidemic is through awareness,” Bellimac said.
Another problem, according to him, is that people attached a stigma to the disease, making it difficult for the DOH to determine the true number of infected individuals.
“People are afraid to go out and get tested, and that poses as a challenge to us,” Bellimac said.
Outreach programs and educational activities in the local governments are also being conducted, tapping the gay and lesbian population who have seen a dramatic increase in infected cases.
HIV treatments through antiretroviral drugs are also made available by the DOH, according to Bellimac. He said 4,508 patients receive the treatment.
Bellimac asked the help of other government agencies, saying HIV is a multi-sectoral issue.
“The health department can only do so much, and what is really needed is the right education for everyone” to contain the spread of the disease, he said.
“We are calling on the Department of Education, Commission on Higer Education and even the Department of Social Welfare and Development to help us spread information about the disease,” Bellimac said.
“Kids as young as 15 years old should already be informed. It is not only the government’s duty to address this issue, but also the families of the young ones to educate their children,” he said.
Teresita Bagasao, country coordinator of the United Nations Program for HIV/AIDS, underscored the need for counseling, not only for people who already have the virus but those who engage in risky sex.
Bagasao warned that risky sexual behaviors are prevalent among the youth which comprise a third of the country’s 94 million population. She said that only one fourth of those youths have themselves tested.
“This is not only about having the best statistics. We have to make them voluntarily have themselves tested because the test is a step towards treatment. They need to understand that this is not like an ordinary disease like tuberculosis where the treatment has a timeframe of like, six months. HIV needs a lifetime treatment,” Bagasao.
Avelino said the number of HIV cases will drop “if there is proper implementation of the intervention in areas. We need facilitation. The measures should not be punitive in nature.”