In the real world

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In less than four weeks, the Philippines is likely to set a new and disturbing record: For the first time, the number of new HIV-infected individuals will top 3,000 in a single year. This alarming total is twice that of the number of new HIV cases recorded only two years ago—and Alberto Romualdez, health secretary during the Estrada administration, thinks he knows why:

“Unfortunately, we changed leaderships in 2001, and the new [administration] under the influence of the Church put an embargo on the procurement of [reproductive health] supplies by the national government,” Romualdez told reporters on the sidelines of a Senate forum the other day. The ban applied to one of the more effective protections against HIV protection and the spread of AIDS: the simple condom.

“That’s the connection. It was in 2001 when the procurement stopped, so the government was not able to [restock] the products that were being phased out by USAID and other donors. In 2006, when the supplies finally ran out, the incidence of HIV began to climb.”

These are loaded words; does Romualdez have the supporting data? The monthly disease surveillance reports of the Department of Health, the latest of which brings the data up to October 2012, suggest that Romualdez is in fact on to something.

In the first half of the Arroyo presidency, the number of HIV cases rose only slightly from year to year: from 174 in 2001 to 210 in 2005. The year 2006 saw a big jump of about 50 percent, to 309. And then the dam broke: 342 in 2007, then up 54 percent to 528 cases in 2008, up 58 percent to 835 in 2009, up a staggering 90 percent to 1,591 HIV cases in 2010.

To be sure, the Aquino administration took over in the middle of 2010, and the record of the last two years has been disappointing. The growth rate has slowed down considerably, but in absolute terms the numbers remain dismal. Last year, the annual total of new HIV patients rose 47 percent to 2,349; this year, at the rate new cases are recorded every month, the full total may reach 3,200 or so—an increase of about 36 percent.

All of which beg the question: Is this the new normal? Even if the DOH manages to stabilize the alarming growth rate in new infections, has the HIV situation in the country reached a tipping point? Even if the restocked RH supplies reach more and more Filipinos at risk, we may still be looking at 2,000 to 3,000 new HIV-infected individuals every year.

“The purchase order [for condoms] …. was stopped because of pressure from the Church,” Romualdez has said. This assertion needs to be verified, but the reality is, Church opposition to contraceptives is no secret. After its legitimacy crisis erupted in 2005, the Arroyo administration deliberately courted the support of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines by moving heaven and earth on the two social issues dearest to the CBCP: the death penalty and reproductive health. The real surprise would be if President Gloria Arroyo did not succumb to pressure from the bishops.

But the DOH statistics should prompt the leaders of the Catholic Church to examine their conscience, and to review their position on the vexing issue of HIV and AIDS. The numbers clearly show that the Church’s view on condoms, as symbolic of a pernicious “contraceptive mentality,” as a policy measure that would only encourage promiscuity and even greater moral irresponsibility, has real-world consequences.

Unless the leaders of the Church are prepared to question the validity itself of the DOH statistics, they should humbly accept the unavoidable conclusion that the no-condom policy they favor has put more Filipino lives—thousands more every year—at great risk. Christian duty requires nothing less.

This is not to say that the statistics have made the issue less complicated. On the contrary, very personal (and therefore moral) reasons explain the explosion in HIV cases. But the role of a truly compassionate Church is not to pass judgment or to add to the ranks of the vulnerable; it is to care for the sick, and lessen their suffering.

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