No longer a death sentence | Inquirer Opinion

No longer a death sentence

/ 05:03 AM September 25, 2022

There is yet another health issue that needs urgent attention: The Philippines has the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the Asia-Pacific region, with the Department of Health (DOH) recently noting an increase of more than 100 percent — from 72,000 in 2017 to almost 150,000 this year — in HIV cases in the country, most of them coming from the youth sector. The COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed to the increase in infection rates as it disrupted the government’s HIV testing, treatment, and support programs over the last two years.

The bad news is: the President has yet to name a new health secretary, despite mounting health problems that require critical decision-making by a duly appointed department head.

Fortunately, there have recently been medical breakthroughs in the treatment and care of people with HIV, after a fourth patient in California — a man who has lived with the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV, which damages the body’s immune system, since 1988 — was reported as cured and in remission after a bone marrow transplant.

The fight against HIV has also come a long way since the 1980s — being diagnosed with the disease no longer means death as transmission can be reduced and controlled through early diagnosis and treatment.


Last July, efforts to find a cure to HIV, which can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS, had a major breakthrough after a British pharmaceutical giant reached a deal to allow for the distribution of a low-cost generic version of a long-term preventive treatment against HIV, particularly in low-income countries where most of the infections occur. The deal, according to reports, will allow selected manufacturers to produce generic and injectable versions of cabotegravir LA, which has been shown to provide two-month protection against infection. The injection has been shown to be more effective compared with its oral counterpart which needed to be taken daily.

Still, the increase of HIV infections in the country is a cause for concern, considering that HIV/AIDS is one of the world’s most fatal diseases and a leading cause of death globally. According to the World Health Organization, 84.2 million people have been infected with the virus since the start of the epidemic in 1981, and about 40.1 million have died from it. At present, there are 38.4 million people living with HIV, while at least one million die from the virus every year.

The DOH’s HIV briefer for 2020 noted a 237-percent increase in annual new HIV infections from 2010 to 2020, while AIDS-related deaths have increased by 315 percent during the same period. The trend has also shifted: HIV cases from 1984 to 2006 were mostly transmitted through sex between men and women, but that started to change in 2007 when more cases were detected among males who have sex with males (MSM). The DOH report also showed very low use of condoms, at 38 percent, among MSM, especially among younger age groups. It warned that if such a rapid increase in new infections is sustained, the estimated number of people living with HIV is likely to triple by 2030 and reach over 330,000.

Obviously, the fight against such diseases as HIV would need a substantial budget to fund prevention and treatment programs. The government, according to DOH officer in charge Maria Rosario Vergeire, invests P5 billion annually for “priority diseases,” including HIV. The DOH provides free antiretroviral medicines for HIV patients, as well as a maximum P30,000 a year per patient; DOH-accredited treatment hubs nationwide—there are more than 170, according to the latest data—also offer free HIV kits, with campaigns encouraging the public to go for tests, as diagnosis could prevent the spread, as well as educating the general public to lessen the stigma about HIV.


While the world still has a long way to go in addressing the stigma surrounding the disease and those who have it, advances in medical research have offered hope that there will be a cure. Though doctors said that while bone marrow transplants are not going to revolutionize HIV treatment, they have also offered new insights into research on the virus. For now, making testing and treatment accessible is crucial in ending the HIV epidemic.

As Vergeire stressed, HIV no longer serves as a death sentence as long as there is early detection and treatment: “You can live a productive life. [People living with HIV] need not be feared or ostracized. We all need to help each other so that our individuals who have this kind of disease or who are suspected to have this disease will not be scared of going to our facilities to have themselves tested.”



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TAGS: Editorial, HIV

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