THE Philippines is one of nine countries where the number of human immunodeficiency virus-acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV- AIDS) cases is growing. But what is more alarming is that many of the new victims are teenagers, with some as young as 15.
Based on a study conducted by the Department of Health (DOH), more young Filipinos have acquired the HIV. Data from the Philippine HIV/AIDS Registry showed that in January this year alone, 118 of the new HIV patients belong to the 15 to 24 age bracket.
They are among the 448 fresh HIV cases reported for the first month of the year.
Half of the 448 victims, or 224 patients, are from Metro Manila, while 16 percent come from the Calabarzon region, seven percent from Davao region, and four percent from Western Visayas. The rest of the regions recorded less than one to two percent of HIV cases this year.
From 1984 to January 2014, 36 people below 15 years old were infected with HIV. For the same period, 429 people aged 15 to 19 acquired the virus, as well as 3,467 in the 20 to 24 age bracket.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) has also noticed this disturbing trend, saying new HIV infections “now occur at a younger age.”
“In some areas, one in three persons most at risk are in the 15-17 age group,” Unicef said.
Experts attribute the spike in HIV cases to unprotected sex. The sharp increase in HIV cases started in 2008.
Teresita Bagasao, Country Coordinator for the UN Program in HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), said there is a decline in infection and death figures worldwide. However, the Philippines is on an upward trend.
“Sad to say, we are included among nine countries with over 25 percent new reported infections. It’s worrisome because the new infections that have been reported have come only in the last three years,” she said.
The other countries where HIV/AIDS is on the rise are Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Kaszakhstan, Kyrgystan, Republic of Moldova, Georgia, and Guinea-Bissau.
From 2008-2012, there was a 538 percent increase in new cases of HIV in the Philippines, according to the National Epidemiology Center of the Department of Health (DoH).
Bagasao said when the first infection was reported in 1984, HIV/AIDS was considered a slow and hidden disease. But since 2007 when one HIV case was reported every three days, the disease has been on a “fast and furious” rampage. Now, one HIV infection is reported every two hours or 30 cases a day.
According to a 2013 study of the University of the Philippines Population Institute (UPPI), premarital sex among the youth rose to 32 percent from 18 percent in 1994. The study showed that in 2013, 6.2 million Filipino youth had premarital sex, and more than half of this number—4.8 million young people—indulged in unprotected sex.
Of the 6.2 million, 7.3 percent engaged in casual sex (one with no relationship or payment involved, and happened only once or twice), and 5.3 percent of males had sex with other males.
However, only 40 percent of these youth aged 15 to 24 are aware of sexually transmitted diseases. However, 80 percent are aware of HIV/AIDS.
“This means that the youth are not able to connect AIDS with sexually transmitted diseases,” UPPI Dean Joy Natividad said. She described the findings as “shocking” because these are youth who have graduated from high school and college but they do not understand STDs.
The study noted that unprotected sex could heighten the risk of pregnancy or acquiring sexually-transmitted diseases.
Infections among the youth, which comprise one-fourth of the total number of cases, increased tenfold in 2013, with 995 reported infections from 44 in 2006. The estimates exclude unreported cases.
Natividad said unprotected sex remains to be the main cause of HIV infection.
“There is a heightened, bolder and wider range of sexual behaviors including those that use the new high speed technology,” she pointed out.
She said the study also looked into how many people found sex partners from texting and the Internet and found that ways of interaction can lead to risky behavior among the youth, such as casual, regular, non-romantic same-gender and extramarital sexual experience.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey Acaba, co-convenor of the Network to Stop AIDS-Philippines (NSAP), said migrants, transgenders, homosexuals and other vulnerable sectors are also at high risk.
“The question is, how do we give them access to HIV testing?” he said.
He added that even if condoms are now sold openly, there is still a “social stigma” on the person purchasing them.
The alarming increase of HIV cases prompted lawmakers to call for the amendment of RA 8504 or the National AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998.
According to the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD), the law’s provisions “no longer respond to the current challenges of the concentrated HIV epidemic in the Philippines.”
Rep. Rodel Batocabe of Ako Bikol said despite advances in medical treatment, the DOH reported that people seek treatment when it is too late.
He said the proposed amendments seek to promote HIV testing of minors even without parental consent.
“It’s reality. No one tells their parent if they had sexual experience or if they have sexually transmitted disease or HIV. When parents got wind of it, they usually get angry. The child gets ostracized, stigmatized,” Batocabe said.
He proposed that minors aged 15 and above who may be infected with HIV should not ask for the consent of their parents before being tested. He said a compassionate approach in counseling and support should be given to the young HIV victims.
“Ito po ay significant change in the law in order for us to help and reach out to a population where incidence of HIV and AIDS is growing, and to have a compassionate approach to their treatment,” Batocabe said.
But this remains a contentious issue in Congress, and lawmakers have yet to iron out other issues such as whether the parents should be informed immediately of the HIV test results.
HIV testing costs at least P1,500 in private clinics and is free in public hospitals. The DoH is trying to improve testing by finding ways to quicken the process, thereby reducing the cost.
Batocabe said the government can shoulder the costs of HIV testing.