DOH says public should not be concerned, but victims don’t agree
(First of Four Parts)
There has been a seismic shift in the type of person who acquires HIV among Filipinos. There are more male victims today than two decades ago when more females caught the deadly virus that causes AIDS.
The majority of new victims—87 percent—are male, and 93 percent of them contracted the illness through sexual contact with fellow males.
The victims who agreed to be interviewed by The Manila Times were male, although they did not all represent the biggest bulk of new patients.
The highest at-risk group consists of males between the ages of 18 and 24.
Joel Hernandez is 35. He was first diagnosed with HIV in 2010. He is “not sure” when he contacted the disease. All he recalls is that he found a job as a physical therapist in King Faisal Hospital in Saudi Arabia, and therefore needed to get a clean bill of health. It was after he took a physical examination that he found out that he had become a carrier. Joel admits that the reason he got the disease was because of his gay lifestyle.
Gerry (family name withheld at his request) is 38. He has been an HIV carrier for nine years. Married with one child, he went to Dubai to work as a chef in a hotel. There, he entered into a sexual relationship with a Nepalese man. It was, he says, his first experience in gay sex. While now separated, he remains friends with his former wife and 11-year-old son.
Joey (family name withheld at his request) is in his mid-20s. Good-looking by conventional standards, he comes from a wealthy family. As such, he had all the trappings of the stereotypical playboy, complete with car and condo. Joey admits to being “a player,” and says that he has had sex with “more than 20 women.” He also experimented with drugs and gay sex. Of the latter, his experiences convinced him that he was a true bisexual.
Like most victims, Hernandez believed that HIV/AIDS was something that happened to other people.
“I had a playful life,” he told The Manila Times. Having a medical background made him believe that he was taking the proper precautions to prevent his catching the disease. He was then a medical representative for a drug company.
Joey, on the other hand, was aware of the risks he was taking with his sexual promiscuity. He, too, believed HIV was a disease that “other people, not me” caught.
Hernandez went into hiding for the first eight months after learning of his condition. Gerry, too, was depressed for almost a year, although his father welcomed him back home and asked him to run their small family business.
Hernandez still has an active sex life, but only with other men who are also HIV-positive. Gerry avoids sex totally, whether with a male or female partner. Joey had a more matter-of-fact attitude. “I paid the price,” he said with a weak smile.
Hernandez is presently working for the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, and his entire family is aware of his status. All except his grandfather, who is still kept in the dark because “he will not understand.” Gerry, on the other hand, is now connected with the Department of Health. For his part, Joey is involved with a business owned by his family.
What the DOH believes
According to the Department of Health (DOH), HIV in the Philippines is not as bad as it seems. Since 1984 until May of this year, there have been a total of 13,594 recorded cases.
According to Dr. Jose Leonard Bellimac, program manager for the HIV/AIDS division of the DOH, “We do not use the word ‘alarmed.’ We are not alarmed by the increase in number of cases in the country, but we believe that this is something that needs to be addressed and cause more attention from the government.”
The DOH believes that prevention is still the key to combat the spread of the virus. It is through “abstinence and the use of condom when engaging with high risk sex,” Bellimac said, that the government advocates how to stop the spread of the virus in the country.
Bellimac believes that through the “government’s support in various activities of HIV prevention, their programs being implemented, and through the support of the Local Government Units,” the government is doing enough to address the problem of HIV in the Philippines.
As for reports indicating that for every person, there are four infected individuals who have not reported their condition, Bellimac is doubtful with such reports.
“I am not convinced with these reports. There are no specific scientific studies that support their claim. If in case these reports are true, the DOH encourages patients to undergo counseling and refer sexual partners they might have had to come out for counseling and testing,” Bellimac said.
However, one of the patients interviewed by The Manila Times said that the HIV community was well aware that a larger number preferred to keep their conditions secret.
While there may be no scientific studies, there is more than enough anecdotal evidence to show that there are tens of thousands who are already infected, are aware of their condition, but who are not admitting the fact.
It gets worse. The victim did his own math.
“If only one out of five are willing to admit they are HIV-positive, this means that there are 65,000 Filipinos who know they have the disease but 80 percent refuse to admit it.
But what about the Filipinos who have it but are not aware of it?”
By his estimate, there may be 10 times more than the 13,000-plus registered HIV/AIDS patients who have the disease, but are not aware of it.
In other words, there may be as many as 200,000 Filipinos who have HIV/AIDS and they may not know it, or are in denial.
A Health official agreed that the numbers may be much higher than believed.
Assistant Health Secretary Eric Tayag said that “patients are not asked to come out and report their conditions. It is the physicians who see these patients that provide these reports. Only confirmed cases are reported. Cases are reported if HIV testing is done. That is why it is important for high-risk individuals to get themselves tested for HIV. Presently, fewer individuals with high risk behavior have HIV testing done.”
Tayag also enumerated intervention programs that the health department is focused on.
“The DOH has focused on three interventions to halt the spread of HIV: reduce high risk behaviors, improve coverage for preventive measures, ensure access to treatment, support and care,” the assistant secretary said.
Although the spread of the virus is on a steady rise, the DOH has “anti-retro viral” drugs free for diagnosed HIV patients. Bellimac refers to this as “life-saving,” explaining that the drug “suppress the level of virus in the body that ensures longer symptom manifestation.”
Bellimac, however, said that although “anti retro viral” drugs are free, “diagnosed patients would have to go through a battery of tests to assure that the body is ready for the drugs, and these series of tests is unfortunately, not free.”
The HIV program manager also identified four high risk places in the country — all the cities of Metro Manila; Angeles City in Pampanga; Cebu City; and Danao and Davao City in Mindanao.
Tayag said that the increase of HIV cases in the Philippines is caused by “first, high-risk behaviors among males who have sex with males; second, inadequate preventive measure; third, limited access to treatment, support and care.”
Bellimac believes it is important to make people aware that there are services available in LGUs health centers and social hygiene clinics, in order to combat the spread of the virus.
The DOH is aware that “a certain Dr. Fabunan” from Zambales has allegedly developed a “wonder drug” that can cure the virus.
However, Tayag said that “he was advised repeatedly to follow ethical procedures in experimental treatment,” referring to the existence of Fabunan’s created medicine.
The “certain Dr. Fabunan” referred to is actually several physicians. Four Fabunan siblings have been practicing medicine in Zambales since the mid-70s.
The Manila Times visited the Fabunan facility in San Marcelino, Zambales, recently. One of the siblings, Dr. Willie Fabunan, said they were not going out of their way to get the blessings of DOH.
“Our patients are the best proof that the treatments we offer work,” he said.
The family does not want to reveal the secrets of their formula even to DOH for fear that it can be easily stolen from them.
Called the “Fabunan Antiviral Injection,” Dr. Fabunan admitted that it was actually a cocktail drug made from readily available medication.
Patented in the US, the formula is owned by Fil-Am Tech, Inc., a Los Angeles, California-based biotech company. The four Fabunan siblings and four other investors are the owners of the company.
Dr. Fabunan claims that their FAI “kills HIV infected cells.”
One of the patients told The Manila Times that what is actually promised by the Fabunans is that HIV will be put “on permanent hibernation” by the treatment, but they will remain HIV-positive for the rest of their life.
More research, intervention needed
With regard to alternative drugs, Tayag said that “DOH encourages research in HIV treatment in collaboration with the scientific community.”
Bellimac added that the department “supports the works of the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD) of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). They do health-related researches. We encourage all independent researchers to come forward and work with the government.”
With the proliferation of same-sex activities and the promiscuity of media content, it is no wonder that cases of HIV and AIDS continually rise. And without more extensive intervention from the government, this number will continue to grow.