When LA Laker Earvin “Magic” Johnson revealed he was HIV-positive in 1991, he almost single-handedly altered the public’s perception of the typical HIV/AIDS patient.
Considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Johnson’s announcement was not lost on basketball-crazy Filipinos.
Previously, HIV/AIDS “victims” were seen either as homosexual men, or women who worked in the sex industry. The former stereotype was even turned into a mainstream 1993 Hollywood movie Philadelphia that won a best actor Academy Award for Tom Hanks. The latter, on the other hand, was the subject of a 1993 Filipino film The Dolzura Cortez Story starring Vilma Santos.
As a disease, AIDS was highly misunderstood two decades ago. Religious fanatics considered it “a punishment from God” for the sexual excesses of its victims.
While a complete falsehood, there was some truth to the other mistaken belief about AIDS—that it would lead to certain death for whoever had the disease, which had no known cure.
Fast forward to 2013 and Filipinos still generally remain in the dark about HIV/AIDS.
This could be gleaned from an informal survey taken by The Manila Times where college-age men and women were found to still cling to misconceptions about the disease that have been dispelled as far back as two decades ago.
There was, for example, a belief that HIV was an airborne virus and that living in the same house or working in the same office with a person who was HIV-positive exposed one to the disease.
(Note: Two decades ago, a handful of fellow NBA players refused to face Magic Johnson in the playing court, afraid that they would accidentally catch the disease if they were exposed to the Laker’s sweat or saliva. This caused him to retire while still in his peak.)
Another rumor: the multinational drug companies had long ago discovered a cure for full-blown AIDS, but were withholding this from the public in order to continue earning billions of dollars from the plight of the victims.
Research and information
This leads to the need for greater research and a permanent information campaign to keep the Philippines updated on the disease that has killed millions worldwide, and whose spread remains unchecked in the country.
Filipino-Briton Ramon Gueco Siopongco recognizes the need for both. He was a volunteer at a UK health facility where he saw firsthand the superior care HIV/AIDS victims enjoyed.
In England, he said, the state takes care of all the needs of everyone, even non-residents. Up until the end of their lives, AIDS victims were treated humanely such that they could die with their dignity intact, he said.
Himself a cancer victim, Siopongco travels regularly from Manila to London, where he continues to receive what he says is high-quality treatment that was too expensive to procure in the Philippines.
Now retired, Siopongco set up the Philippine Outreach Sodality (Philoso) Foundation in 2008 while still based in England, he told The Manila Times.
The foundation began by donating computers and providing scholarships to students in Butuan, as well as his adopted province of Batangas. The foundation also set up a home for abandoned women, mostly senior citizens, in Tanauan.
“We’re taking care of fourteen lolas,” he said of the de facto Home for the Aged funded by Philoso, which is also paying for the education of 25 high school students.
Sometime last year, he and his partner Dan met Dr. Edsel Maurice Salvaña, as well as a handful of HIV-positive patients and their tales led him to his newest advocacy—helping as many patients as possible through a research facility.
Ten Outstanding Young Men awardee Salvaña used gentle pressure on the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) to provide space for the research facility that the Philoso Foundation would operate.
An empty room which was “little more than a bodega” was provided for free by PGH on the condition that Philoso would take care of everything else.
By his own admission, Siopongco has spent about P1 million of his money, but is now looking at private sector donors to help defray the estimated P1 million more needed to buy the basic supplies to get the research center off and running.
Small donations have resulted in the room being spruced up via general cleaning and a paint job.
Earlier, Salvaña had attempted to raise funds for HIV/AIDS research by co-sponsoring a concert. “He nearly lost his mind,” Siopongco said with a smile. Half a million pesos was raised by the project, which the doctor swears he will never try again.
The young doctor and the retired Fil-Briton are looking for ways to raise funds to purchase hospital beds and equipment for starters.
“The stigma of HIV” is the main reason why they are having great difficulty raising money, according to Siopongco.
“I’ve written company presidents” with no results, he told The Manila Times.
He said he was desperate enough to accept donations from any source, including politicians and even gambling lords who donate regularly to the Church.
Siopongco’s biggest problem, he says, is “I don’t know anybody.” Meaning the big donors for whom P1 million is little more than a drop in the bucket or a tax write-off.
Time to come out
A few months ago, international Filipino singing star Charice Pempengco came out of the closet and announced that she was a lesbian. From showbiz to sports to politics, men and women have been “coming out” of late, no longer ashamed of their sexual preferences.
Siopongco and Salvaña are hoping that a similar Magic Johnson-style coming out will take place in the Philippines, and that the unknown number of HIV/AIDS victims will be open about their being carriers of the disease, then seek the proper treatment.
There may not yet be a cure for it, but HIV/AIDS is no longer a fatal condition.
The one warning they have is that anyone who is positive for HIV should avoid “crackpot” cures.
Siopongco, Salvaña, the Health department, and countless health professionals may as well be repeating what the late, great US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said: “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”