Beauty and the virus
Pia Wurtzbach sought to raise awareness of the clear and present danger gripping the Philippines by submitting to a public HIV test. Raising awareness of HIV has been her advocacy — a fact recognized by the United Nations in naming her its UNAIDS goodwill ambassador for the Asia-Pacific — and her public testing last Wednesday conveys her commitment to educate Filipinos on this modern-day scourge and the need to view it with concern but without the stigma attached to it.
“It is very tricky in the Philippines because we’re a predominantly Catholic country and we are conservative. That’s why it can be quite a challenge to spread awareness on this issue,” the 2015 Miss Universe told reporters. If nothing is done about the high degree of HIV infection in the Philippines, she said, “we’re gonna be No. 1 in the world.”
A tragic distinction, to be sure. But the alarming fact is that the Philippines has held the highest HIV infection rate in the Asia-Pacific region over the last six years, with a 140-percent increase in new infections.
Health Secretary Pauline Ubial recently announced that at the end of 2016, 10,500 Filipinos had been infected with HIV — a disturbing increase from the 4,300 recorded in 2010. As many as 1,098 new cases of HIV were recorded last May — the greatest number, Ubial pointed out, since HIV was first monitored in 1984. Between 2010 and 2015 alone, the infection rate rose over 50 percent, according to the Department of Health.
“Right now, the Philippines runs the risk of letting the infection get out of control,” said UNAIDS for Asia and the Pacific director Steven Kraus. The rate of HIV infection in the country continues to rise, in direct contrast to other countries where the infection rate is dropping.
UNAIDS said that in Asia, the infection rate had decreased 13 percent; it predicted decreases over 30 percent in other Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Malaysia.
Kraus said the Philippines’ HIV infection rate is comparable to that of Afghanistan. In 2008, only one person a day was being diagnosed with HIV. In 2017, 29 people a day are being diagnosed as positive for the virus.
Lack of education is at the root of this issue. The DOH estimated that only 17 percent of Filipinos aged 15-24 properly understood the nature of HIV and how a person can get infected.
Additionally, the Philippines is 80-percent Catholic, and even just testing for HIV is considered taboo. Young Filipinos, the ones most vulnerable, need to be better educated on the matter. They need to know that HIV is transmitted in the exchange of bodily fluids, most commonly through unprotected sex. It can also be spread through tainted needles, blood transfusions, and from mother to child.
It should be pointed out that scientific breakthroughs have produced medications that allow persons with HIV to lead as close to normal lives as possible and to prevent the infection from leading to full-blown AIDS. While still very dangerous, HIV is no longer the death sentence it used to be. But it needs to be detected early — hence the importance of HIV testing. There is no excuse to be ignorant of it and of how it spreads.
The DOH has begun a pilot program called Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PreP), in which a daily pill that can help protect people from contracting HIV is used. It’s one of various efforts by private and public organizations in the Philippines to fight the spread of HIV, and these efforts need to be highlighted and supported.
With the stakes so high, Wurtzbach’s championing the cause of HIV testing is significant. “We hope to see an increase in the rates of regular HIV testing among Filipinos to normalize the procedure as a regular medical exam,” she said.
In line with her campaign for public awareness of HIV particularly among sexually active young Filipinos, Wurtzbach is backing the passage of legislation that would allow 15-year-olds to take the HIV test without need for parental consent. As it stands today, Filipinos have to be at least 18 to be tested without their parents’ approval.
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