• Philippine officials struggle to erase HIV/AIDS stigma

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    VISUALIZE THIS: a high-profile espionage squad goes on a stealth mission to infiltrate a military base, obtains a lot of information and kills a lot of people along the way, with only a few guards noticing it.

    Visualize this too: that espionage squad is composed of more than one hundred thousand soldiers. And in case the officers and men of the military base do not notice a hundred thousand foreign invaders climbing their fences, it must be a highly incompetent organization, indeed.

    This is happening now, although not in the context of a military invasion.

    The prevalence of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) here in the Philippines is the elephant in the room: known, but not a topic to be talked about; obvious, but a fact betrayed by statistics; fatal, but neglected by the people.

    If HIV/AIDS is the high-profile espionage squad and the military base being attacked is the Philippines, then there must be something very wrong with this society after it failed to defend itself against an enemy that is far from unbeatable.

    How grave is grave?
    The country is at a loss in terms of recognizing the gravity of the problem that HIV/AIDS brings, how to cope with the patients, and how to control its spread. According to UNAIDS, a joint United Nations program on HIV/AIDS, there are currently 34 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide, and another 38 million have died from it since the epidemic started in 1981.

    Most thought that the incidence of HIV/ AIDS within the Philippines was low, but this was actually not the case: the numbers were low compared to the global statistics because there were only a few documented cases.

    Dr. Edsel Salvaña, Tropical Medicine and Infectious Diseases Expert of the Philippine General Hospital (PGH), told The Manila Times in an exclusive interview that according to the UNAIDS, the documented cases of HIV/AIDS around the world has dropped by 20 percent in the past decade.

    Here in the Philippines? The number of cases rose by a whopping 1,250 percent in the same period.

    Stereotypes provide stigma
    Let us face it: in this country, being an HIV/AIDS patient is tantamount to being immoral, in the sense that people inflicted with the disease could not have obtained it if they had refrained from homosexual practices, drug abuse and abstained from casual sex.

    The sad thing, however, is that these are all stereotypes.

    Surely, a lot of the above-mentioned groups make up majority of the infected people. But everyone has to take into consideration the fact that people who are monogamous, people who have one sexual partner, and people who do not use drugs can also get HIV/AIDS.

    Dr. Salvaña pointed out the dilemma: when the only way out of the disease is early detection and self-submission to an HIV/AIDS test, the idea that a lot of people are talking behind a patient’s back is disheartening and discouraging.

    It is a shame that Philippine society still tends to outcast the Filipino HIV/AIDS carrier when their counterparts in the West are treated normally. Here, patients experience isolation from their own families, peers and eventually, their community.

    The stigma coming from the acquisition of HIV/AIDS is often layered on top of many other stigmas associated with the behaviors of homosexuals, commercial sex workers and drug abusers. They have a larger share of the blame, and a smaller share of sympathy.

    Two steps backward for DOH
    According to Dr. Salvaña, despite the free retroviral treatment being offered in many public hospitals, only six percent of Filipinos who are of risk of HIV/AIDS have had themselves tested. Aside from this, Philhealth, the national health insurance program, included HIV/AIDS in the list of diseases covered.

    Dr. Salvaña is baffled why the remaining 94 percent chooses to live through the sickness, considering that the treatment is free.

    In May 2013 alone, according the Department of Health (DOH), there was a total of 405 new cases of HIV/AIDS–– that is, 13 cases per day. If the new cases are just a part of the six percent HIV/AIDS patients, then the findings of DOH could suggest a larger number of undocumented infected Filipinos.

    What might have caused another stigma for Filipinos from going to hospitals is the current process for treatment. Patients are asked to answer questions about their sexual orientation, sexual practices and the number and sexual behavior of their partners. This type of questioning makes patients cynical regarding confidentiality of their profiles according to Dr. Salvaña.

    “There should be changes regarding the law.” Dr. Salvaña said.

    Loopholes in the law
    The state has a consistent responsibility to protect its constituents from any infectious disease that withdraws the working sector from duty, raising questions on the productivity of its citizens that would, in time, affects the whole society as well.

    But actually, this responsibility extends to the anonymity of the HIV-AIDS victim in order to spare them from disrespect and discrimination. In case such condition is stated because of legal purposes, the welfare of the people in working conditions or of those who need services should be included in the law. Unfortunately, those who can’t fully comprehend the aftermaths of this disease do not recognize a patient’s civil rights.

    On January 2013, the 15th Congress passed the “The Revised Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy and Program Act of 2012, amending the old Republic Act 8504 or “Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act” of 1998. The old law was obviously outdated and ineffective due to the rising numbers of new cases of people with HIV/AIDS.

    One revisions in the law deals with the delivery of intensive and proper approaches to eliminate the “climate of stigma that surrounds the epidemic and people directly and indirectly affected by it.”

    The law states that the “protection of and promotion of human rights are cornerstones of an effective response to the HIV epidemic,” which the 1998 law evidently left unnoticed.

    But the Philippine law has missed important points which the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) had established. With the ADA, departments concerning the working sector anywhere are to comply with the restricted measures of the working hours an employee with HIV or AIDS should spend.

    According to the ADA, if an employer fires a worker after a disclosure of his or her HIV/AIDS condition, or is denied an application for job, the employer can be held accountable. Their qualification for a certain job should be based on an applicant’s productivity and ability to work on their extent, excluding working conditions that has a direct contact or transmission of the disease.

    HIV/AIDS infected employees are also subjected to equal service as what employers and services provide to people who aren’t inflicted with the disease. In some cases, a separate service can be given at any time when needed. The state and its local governments are required to allow HIV/AIDS patients access in any programs, services and activities; given that they had declared the policies, practices and procedures before.

    The rights of an individual to file a complaint directly with the Department of Justice if he/she believes that he have received any form of discrimination during work, while being served or in social gatherings, is included in the ADA.

    Optimism in the dark room
    During the campaign for the presidential candidates last 2010, one of Dr. Salvaña’s colleagues asked a particular candidate regarding his platforms to control the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Philippines. Everyone, even the presidential candidate, was shocked to hear that the country was suffering from an epidemic.

    John Gabriel Pabico-Lalu, Gian Franco, John Roy Abenaza, John Joshua Vera Cruz, Cathy De Leon, Janina Lim

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