WASHINGTON, DC: Hoping to end the social stigma surrounding human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) – the virus that causes AIDS – a Vienna-based men’s magazine called “Vangardist” has released 3,000 copies of its spring issue printed with ink containing a small amount of HIV-positive blood.
To create the ink, three HIV-infected people – gay man, a heterosexual man and a 45-year old mother – donated blood. The donors’ blood samples were then pasteurized in a lab at Austria’s University of Innsbruck in order to neutralize the virus and render it intransmissible. The blood was then mixed into an ink solution that was used by the printing press.
The magazine has assured readers that its HIV-tainted cover is “100 percent safe” to handle, pointing out that the virus decomposes and dies naturally outside the body in around 30 minutes.
According to Vangardist’s publisher and CEO, Julian Wiehl, people have grown too complacent about the disease. Wiehl points out that there are “80 percent more confirmed cases of HIV being recorded in 2013 than 10 years previously, and an estimated 50 percent of HIV cases being detected late due to lack of testing caused by social stigma associated with the virus.”
Meanwhile, closer to home, TV host Boy Abunda showed the results of his recent HIV test during the live episode of “Aquino & Abunda” last week. The famous celebrity-host – whose results were negative – took the test to call attention to the stigma surrounding HIV in the Philippines as part of his advocacy for the United Nations Population Fund.
Reigniting the conversation about HIV/AIDS could not have been more timely, especially with the latest reports indicating the country’s HIV numbers reaching epidemic levels.
In contrast to the rest of the world which has seen a decline in new infections over the last decade, there was a 538 percent increase in new cases of HIV in the Philippines from 2008-2012.
Just this February, there were a total of 646 new cases of HIV infection – the highest recorded number of new infections. This is equivalent to 21 Filipinos being infected with HIV every day.
In some urban areas like Quezon City, Manila, Caloocan and Cebu, the rate of HIV infection among certain high-risk groups have exceeded 5 percent. In two years’ time, according to the World Health Organization, HIV infection in these areas will really be uncontrollable.
An official of the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has warned about the “fast and furious” spread of HIV in the country, which has resulted in a “concentrated epidemic” among MSMs or men-having-sex-with-men. About 84 percent of the new infections are MSM, with commercial sex workers and overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) adding to the growing statistic.
Given these figures, it is almost certain that the Philippines will not meet the HIV/AIDS targets in the 2015 Millennium Development Goals. The Philippines should have already arrested the growth of HIV. Instead, the country has become one of the world’s HIV “hot spots.”
Still, the Aquino administration does not seem alarmed. Perhaps because the disease hasn’t spread to the general population, meaning, the ordinary heterosexual Filipino family.
The problem with an epidemic, however, is its tendency to replicate exponentially in a matter of a few years. If the spike in HIV cases is not arrested soon, we’re looking at least a million Filipinos with HIV by 2022. That’s only seven years from now.
Our health officials should fight the disease as aggressively as other common yet deadly diseases in the country. But that’s possible only if HIV infections are detected and detected early. Early detection will enable health care workers to initiate treatment at the earlier stages of the disease.
The obvious first step is to end the stigma surrounding HIV. A culture of prejudice and shame deters people from getting tested and prevents carriers from disclosing their HIV status to sexual partners, making it difficult for prevention programs to operate effectively.
Ironically, the biggest stumbling block for this effort is the very same law that was enacted to prevent and control the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Under RA 8504 or the National AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998, compulsory HIV testing is prohibited except in very few instances. This has left health officials powerless to monitor, test and/or treat people from “at-risk” sectors (such as commercial sex workers, OFWs, etc.)
Unless the Aquino administration treats the growing HIV numbers as a national emergency, the disease is poised to become a huge public health and socio-economic problem that can seriously undermine the country’s growth.
Unfortunately, it will take more than education and volunteerism to reverse the alarming trend. Like any battle, the Aquino government needs to take drastic measures, first and foremost of which is to immediately amend the AIDS law to expand free – and compulsory – HIV testing as a matter of public good and public welfare.