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Editorial

Underrated scourge

/ 12:14 AM December 04, 2011

When cases of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus-Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome were first reported in 1981, they sent the world into hysteria, with people fearing just about any contact with those who had been found positive with the disease. Spreading rapidly, and with no known cure for it, HIV-AIDS was a dreaded condition.

But once people knew it existed, the ingenuity of mankind was turned to it like a torch pointed at the night. Since then, medical research as well as media education have helped properly inform people around the world about HIV-AIDS. (HIV is the virus that leads to full-blown AIDS.) And the focus has now shifted to prevention.

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The World Health Organization estimates that there are 33.4 million people with HIV-AIDS, with Africa being the most devastated territory where an entire generation of children have been born into a life of which HIV is an ever-present element, and where millions die of the disease every year. While a cure remains elusive, HIV-AIDS patients can now look forward to living longer, more meaningful lives.

Back in 1981, the United Nations declared Dec. 1 as World AIDS Day. But as we celebrated the 30th World AIDS Day in 2011, we find out that perhaps the defanging of HIV-AIDS pandemic had also led, here in the Philippines, to our underestimating the disease that so terrified a generation. The Nov. 21 report from the Joint United Nations Program on HIV-AIDS (UNAIDS) stated that “since 1997, new infections (worldwide) have been reduced by 21 percent, while deaths from AIDS-related illnesses decreased by 21 percent since 2005.”

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But while HIV-AIDS is now on the downturn worldwide, it continues to spread and ravage populations in only seven countries. Unfortunately, one of them is the Philippines.

The numbers are frightening. The Philippine HIV & AIDS Registry reported that there have been a total of 7,031 HIV positive cases up to 2011, of which the vast majority (93 percent) were male. This year alone, 1,800 cases have been recorded. UNAIDS social mobilization adviser Merceditas Apilado said, “The number of HIV infections and AIDS cases here continue to go up, not down.” In fact, the Department of Health reported that September 2011 had the highest recorded incidents of HIV-AIDS ever – some 253 cases, the most since the Philippines began tracking the disease in 1984. Most alarmingly, the disease is hitting hardest the ranks of young Filipinos, especially those between the age of 15 to 24, among whom the number of infection has risen tenfold from 2007 to 2010. Reportedly, sexual contact is the most common means of transmission.

It’s as if HIV-AIDS literally crept up on the Philippines and proceeded with its deadly work while we were distracted by the rise of new plagues such as the avian flu.

Aside from letting our collective guard down, the continued spike in the number of HIV-AIDS cases has been attributed to the flawed programs designed to control the disease. The country’s anti-HIV-AIDS programs “remain either unfunded or under-funded and have not been able to keep up with the change and pace in HIV transmission,” UNAIDS country coordinator Teresita Bagasao said. “More than half of program funding comes from external sources,” she added.

It is time for the Filipinos to reassess the effort against the spread of HIV-AIDS. Earlier this year, the Philippines received a commitment of $20.4 million (P890 million) from the Global Fund to combat the spread of HIV-AIDS. This month, thinkers and movers alike will meet in Baguio for the 6th Annual HIV-AIDS Conference, with the goal of “zero-new infections.” There is also a push in Congress to convene a monitoring council as a move to educate more overseas Filipino workers about the disease. There are private initiatives, such as the Red Whistle campaign, which aim to increase HIV-AIDS awareness among young people.

But it is only through the concerted efforts of government and citizens, young and old, infected and uninfected, that we will be able to stop HIV-AIDS in its tracks, and bequeath to our children and their children a future beyond the shadow of this terrible illness.

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