To stem the inroads of HIV
TOKYO — The passage of the Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act on third and final reading at the House of Representatives is a timely accomplishment. With the current rise in the number of HIV cases in the Philippines, the 188-0 vote is indeed a laudable feat. It shows that the government is serious in curbing the threat of HIV/AIDS.
The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency’s much criticized handling of a recent buy-bust drug operation in a BGC hotel illustrates why there is a need to revise the existing AIDS law. The agents’ disclosure of a suspect’s HIV information, the sensational reporting by certain media outlets, and the ensuing frenzy in social media show the ignorance of many about the disease.
While the PDEA chief apologized after drawing criticism, the episode reflects the need to make our society better understand the complexities of HIV/AIDS. Beyond being a health menace, it is a multilayered social issue that fundamentally triggers people’s biases. Therefore, the House’s unanimous stand is a step in the right direction.
The Department of Health’s special report on the HIV crisis estimates that there are 56,000 Filipinos currently living with the virus. According to the latest HIV/AIDS registry (July and August) there are 1,962 confirmed cases for the two months. The trajectory has been upward since 2008. And the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS recently reported that the Philippines has the fastest growing number of HIV cases in the Asia-Pacific.
Among the many goals of the Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act is to make sure that the government is efficient in its response to this reality. One of its key features is the streamlining of the role of the Philippine National AIDS Council for it to become more effective in institutionalizing mechanisms that would ease the lives of the affected. Likewise, the law strengthens the provisions that aim to stamp out the stigma associated with the disease. More importantly, it is a rights-based law that seeks to provide targeted intervention for the vulnerable segments of society.
Currently, the government covers the treatment costs of people living with HIV through PhilHealth. The state subsidizes laboratory tests, professional fees, and the maintenance medicines that HIV-positive persons take to prolong their lives and prevent disease progression. In 2015, the government spent P180 million to purchase these life-saving medicines. In 2016, the budget skyrocketed to P1 billion. We can expect higher government spending as the number of HIV cases increase further—hence the urgency to control the spread of the virus.
Nevertheless, there are obstacles that should be hurdled if we are to stem the inroads of the virus. First, we as a society must reject the implication that HIV is a disease of the hypersexual. Admit it or not, HIV is still seen by many as a disease of those who indulge indiscriminately in sex. What most people overlook is the fact that unprotected sex is the culprit, not sex itself. It is time we went beyond the issue of sexual practices and instead ask: What prevents people from protecting themselves? Is it a question of awareness? Or is it because of lack of access to protection?
Second, we should cast away regressive norms and primitive values that prevent the full implementation of reproductive health and sexual education in the classrooms. The youth are one of the sectors most vulnerable to HIV. The least that can be done is to arm them with knowledge so that they would know how to protect themselves from contracting the virus. To this end, we need to address the prevailing “allergy” to condoms, heeding the statement by Steven Kraus, the director of UNAIDS for Asia and the Pacific, that “all good and successful national AIDS programs use condoms.”
The fight for an inclusive HIV/AIDS policy is just the beginning. There’s much work to be done to change mindsets.
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Jesse Angelo L. Altez is an Asia Development Bank–Japan scholar pursuing public policy at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. React: @AngeloAltez
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