World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) came and went with worrisome news for the country. The latest figures from the Department of Health’s HIV/AIDS and ART Registry of the Philippines are alarming: From July to August alone, the DOH recorded 1,962 new cases of HIV/AIDS; as many as 31 new cases have been reported every day this year — a meteoric rise compared to 2008 when only one case was reported daily. The vast majority of the new cases are male — a staggering 95 percent — and certain details are heartbreaking: 18 pregnant women were diagnosed positive in that same period.
Since the DOH began recording HIV/AIDS cases in 1984, 46,985 cases have been recorded, with more than 2,000 deaths. This year alone saw over 7,000 cases recorded and more than 300 deaths. This is slightly lower than last year’s total of 10,500 cases, but then the year is not yet over.
From all indications, HIV/AIDS is continuing its ruinous rise in the country. In August, then Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial said the Philippines had the highest growth rate in the Asia-Pacific, with new cases having risen 140 percent.
This is particularly disturbing considering that the growth rate in the rest of the region has actually gone down 13 percent.
“The Philippines has the fastest-growing HIV infection rate in Asia, along with Afghanistan,” UNAIDS director for Asia and the Pacific Steven Kraus told Reuters in March. “Right now, the Philippines runs the risk of letting the infection get out of control.”
If these figures aren’t disturbing enough, it’s important to note that it has been rough sailing for the DOH’s nationwide campaign against HIV/AIDS. The latest snag is the shelving of the planned distribution of condoms in schools — a result, said Health Undersecretary Gerardo Bayugo, of the failure of the DOH and the Department of Education to plot a common strategy in ensuring reproductive health. To think that, according to Kraus, “all good and successful national AIDS programs use condoms.”
Instead, the DOH is focusing on an amped-up information campaign, to address the fact that only 17 percent of Filipinos aged 15-24 understand the nature of HIV/AIDS and how it is contracted and spread. Ignorance is the enemy, and the DOH needs all the help it can get from all sectors of society to vanquish this enemy.
In February, National Youth Commission Chair Aiza Seguerra noted that “the face of HIV [infection in the country] is the youth,” and called for minors as young as 15 to be allowed to be tested for HIV/AIDS without need for parental consent.
Former Miss Universe Pia Wurtzbach, UNAIDS goodwill ambassador for the Asia-Pacific, is doing her part in banishing the stigma that comes with testing for HIV/AIDS, let alone having the disease itself.
It is clear that more committed, more widespread action needs to be taken to prevent HIV/AIDS from becoming a full-blown epidemic in the country.
In an encouraging statement, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) urged more involvement in the fight and expressed its own measured response to the situation. Its stand on the matter shows how the religious can take part in the collective effort and pull together with society at large through concrete action, and not mere platitudes.
The NCCP said in part: “As our continuing response, our churches persist in changing and molding the psychosocial environment and attitudes in relation to HIV and its related vulnerabilities. As such we, the member-churches of NCCP commit ourselves to our own 90-90-90 targets by 2020: 90 (percent) of people living with HIV in our congregations will know their HIV status; 90 (percent) of those who know their HIV status will be receiving or will have received psychosocial and spiritual counseling and care which are appropriate and stigma-free from their respective churches; 90 (percent) of those who have received HIV-related counseling and care in their churches will say that they have experienced their faith community to be stigma- and discrimination-free, both in terms of HIV and its associated vulnerabilities.”
As in any other crisis, it takes everyone to do their part to weather the storm.