It used to be that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) problem was only something you read in the newspapers or watched on TV. But when it started hitting close to home, you knew that HIV has become a major public health issue for ordinary Filipinos.
In the past month alone, we received shocking news that a few acquaintances had tested positive for HIV. Our more youthful friends and colleagues are not surprised since they, too, have friends or know of people in their social circle who have recently been found HIV-positive.
The latest statistics seem to bolster the apparent meteoric rise in HIV infections.
The Department of Health (DOH) recorded 841 newly diagnosed HIV cases in the country for the month of June 2016 alone – the highest number of cases reported since 1984 when the first case of HIV infection in the Philippines was reported.
Meanwhile, the number of newly diagnosed Filipinos with HIV per day jumped almost 300 percent in the past four years. From nine cases in 2012, the DOH and private testing centers are now reporting at least 26 new infections every day. That’s equivalent to at least one person getting HIV every hour! It’s no wonder then that the number of new HIV cases in the country has hit a record high in terms of the monthly count for several years now. This also explains why the Philippines has the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the world, according to the World Health Organization.
Health officials say the country’s HIV problem is much, much worse given that the statistics only reflect the number of individuals who voluntarily submitted themselves for testing and does not include everyone in the most at-risk population: males who have sex with males, injecting drug users, and female sex workers.
It is estimated—and this is a conservative estimate – that about 30 percent more people are HIV-infected but have not been diagnosed because they refuse to be tested or don’t know where or how to get tested. Some experts, on the other hand, say the DOH data only captures around 10 percent of the actual number of HIV-infected people, which means the problem is actually ten times worse.
Whatever the real number, be it 30 or 90 percent, it is these undiagnosed individuals who pose the greatest danger because they have no idea they are infected and continue to spread the virus by engaging in risky behavior.
It doesn’t help that there is a cultural and social stigma attached to homosexuality and HIV in the country. The fear of being stigmatized or being forced to expose their sexuality to their family or the authorities fosters the spread of HIV by forcing gay men to go underground for sex and engage in risky behavior.
Also fueling the rapid rise of HIV infections is the growing use by young gay men of mobile dating apps such as Grindr, which has expanded the opportunities for casual sex. This increased smartphone use in the last five years coincides with the biggest jump in new HIV cases. In fact, the period from January 2011 to March 2016 accounts for almost 82 percent (26,632) of all the 32,647 diagnosed cases in the Philippines for the past 33 years.
What is more alarming is that the victims of HIV are getting younger and younger. From 2001 to 2005, the age group with the biggest proportion of cases was 35-49 years. This year, the median age is 28 years old, with more than half (16,697 or 51 percent) from the 25-34 year age group—the so-called “millenials”—while 8,738 (27 percent) were youth aged 15-24 years.
Newly diagnosed HIV cases among the most affected populations—predominantly young gay or bisexual men and transgender people who have sex with men—increased by 230 percent in the past five years. From January 2011 to March 2016, 85 percent (21,510) of new infections through sexual contact were among males who have sex with males.
Perhaps it is because HIV is still largely seen as a “gay disease” affecting the LGBT community—an ostracized minority in the predominantly Christian country—that there is little public clamor (and government funds) to combat this HIV explosion.
We find it quite disturbing that the Zika virus—a little known virus recently linked to the outbreak of microcephaly (an abnormally small brain and head) in newborn babies in Brazil – has been given more attention and wider media coverage than the HIV epidemic sweeping the country and decimating our youth.
If we don’t contain this plague now, HIV will be a threat to every Filipino, with some epidemiologists warning that the infection is likely to cross over to “innocent” victims in the heterosexual community in the next five years.
It’s already happening now, if you ask our Manila Times colleague and Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) chief Persida Acosta. Last month, she dropped that bombshell that 1 to 3 inmates in every jail cell are infected with HIV-AIDS—a circumstance she attributed to the inmates’ biological needs, especially for those longing for their wives. Acosta warned that the inmates may have already passed HIV to their wives during conjugal visits.
The sad thing is that HIV infection is totally preventable. But the government needs to embark on a massive and sustained (and costly) campaign to educate people about HIV and safe sex through the use of condoms and avoidance of risky practices—and actually flood at-risk communities with prophylactics like condoms, syringes, etc. More importantly, there should be easy and free access to HIV testing for minors even without parental consent.
We need a “war on HIV-AIDS” now more than ever, before it’s too late.