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Editorial

Timely law on HIV and AIDS

/ 05:26 AM January 12, 2019

There was good news and bad news in a commentary published Thursday in this paper. In the article titled “HIV and the SDGs,” Christine Stegling, executive director of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, hailed the advances achieved in slowing down the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV.

In many parts of the world, Stegling wrote, “HIV is now considered a chronic disease manageable with medication and lifestyle changes.” HIV, and its once-common outcome called acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS, is no longer a “dreaded” disease or, worse, the “death sentence” many considered it to be.

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But, said Stegling, “despite the remarkable progress made during the last three decades—or perhaps because of it—we must avoid the temptation to declare the fight against AIDS almost over. In many parts of the world, the hardest work is just beginning.”

The Philippines is one such place where the “hardest work” needs to be done, and urgently at that. Of all countries in Southeast Asia, the Philippines is now the only country where the number of new cases is on the rise. Indeed, the Department of Health estimates that there has been a 170-percent increase among those aged 15-24 testing positive, with many believing that the real number of new cases could be much higher.

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Extremely timely, then, is the signing into law this week of the Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act of 2018, which updates and repeals the Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998.

The new law mandates the government to establish programs and policies and adopt a multisectoral approach to prevent the spread of HIV and ensure access to HIV- and AIDS-related services “by eliminating the climate of stigma and discrimination” that surrounds people living with HIV.

Under the law, points out Dinagat Rep. Kaka Bag-ao, one of the principal authors of the bill, the legal framework on HIV and AIDS has been restructured “by harmonizing it with evidence-informed strategies and approaches on prevention, testing, screening, treatment, care and support, making the HIV response flexible and relevant to the characteristic of the HIV epidemic facing the country.”

The Philippine National AIDS Council, created under the previous law and once dominated by government representatives, will be reconstituted to increase representation of civil society organizations, including those working for the welfare of the affected populations and of people living with HIV.

Overall, the human rights of everyone—those diagnosed as HIV-positive, their families and caregivers, the larger public—is assured; human rights are “a core guiding principle” of the new law, according to Bag-ao.

Also notable is that the new law penalizes any person or institution discriminating against people living with HIV or whose HIV status is suspected or under question.

In the early 1990s, when HIV and AIDS first burst into public awareness, attitudes toward people living with the virus veered toward fear and loathing. Otherwise reasonable individuals suggested such foolish and harmful measures as designating an uninhabited island where people who tested positive were to be kept in isolation. Equally loud were calls for mandatory HIV testing for segments of the population deemed particularly vulnerable. Rife at the time were stories of how sex workers, gay people and overseas workers were ill-treated at testing centers even by health professionals.

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Today, public attitudes toward HIV and AIDS have shifted, with manifestations of outright bias or discrimination heard in the media or from officialdom often called out. But private attitudes remain persistent, and ignorance about the characteristics of HIV infection is still prevalent.

HIV, writes Stegling, is a “complex issue.” While medical advancements have made HIV detection, treatment and care available, for many Filipinos these are still not accessible. The obstacles range from ignorance to poverty and shame, what Stegling calls “political, economic and social marginalization.”

It’s good news, then, that the new law was inspired in large part by the vocal lobbying of people living with HIV, who refused to let the indifference of officialdom or the inadequacies of the law remain as barriers to their full enjoyment of their right to health and their right to continue to live, make a living, or dream of a better—or at least different—future for themselves.

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