Is HIV going viral?

Ana P. Santos
Since the DOH began recording HIV in 1984, there have been 10,514 reported cases of HIV in the Philippines

MANILA, Philippines – The exponential rise in HIV cases in the country may be traced back to social media and use of injecting drugs.

This is according to Dr Eric Tayag, head of the Department of Health National Epidemiology Center (DOH-NEC) who gave a report Friday on the status of HIV in the Philippines at the 12th Annual Philippine National Convention on AIDS.

The DOH-NEC noticed a spike in HIV cases beginning in 2007 when only 317 HIV cases were reported. The number of new infections has been continuously increasing and in 2011, there were 2,349 reported cases of HIV.

“In 2000, there was one case of HIV reported every 3 days. Now, there are now 9 new cases reported every day. Every 3 hours, one Filipino becomes infected by HIV,” said Tayag.

Since the DOH began recording HIV in 1984, there have been 10,514 reported cases of HIV in the Philippines.

The DOH-NEC has noted that reported HIV cases are mostly men who have sex with men (MSM) between the ages of 15-24. Growing infections have also been noted among injecting drug users (IDU).

According to Tayag, up until 2008, the DOH-NEC had recorded only 8 HIV infections among IDUs. This number has gone up to 420 cases. 

Social media

“Men who have sex with men are not necessarily outwardly gay. According to our study, they identify as bisexual, homosexual and straight. Hindi lahat yan, out. Nagtatago. Same with injecting drug users, they are a hidden population. Where are you going to find them? How will you find them?” asked Tayag.

This makes it harder to identify populations who are at risk for HIV infection.

“For these hidden populations, social networks provide a powerful network for them to meet and get dates. Those who were surveyed said they could pick up an average of 3 partners a month from networking sites,” Tayag added.

According to a recent Integrated HIV and Behavioral Serologic Surveillance study (IHBSS) done by the DOH-NEC, MSM have reported anywhere between 43 to 500 sexual partners per year from using social media networking sites like Facebook, Twitter or other on-line dating sites like Planet Romeo, ManJam, among others.

Low condom use

“Now, I want to make it clear that you cannot get HIV from Facebook or any other social networking site,” Tayag stressed. “But you have to look at the population and their behavior [of secrecy] to see why they would go to these sites to get partners.”

Low condom use is also seen as a cause for the rise in HIV cases. In 2005, MSM who reported engaging in anal sex was 45.6% and increased to 61.4%. However, this rising trend was not accompanied by an increase in condom use. During the same period, condom use remained almost the same, at a level of 34.1%.

Women are also at risk for HIV

Women are also at risk for contracting HIV from their partners. MSM are men have sex with other men and may or may not have female sex partners.

“In our study, MSM identified themselves as either bi-sexual, homosexual and straight. Those who were identified as straight have female partners who may or may not know about the double sex life of their partner,” said Tayag.

A UNAIDS Study on Intimate Partner transmission indicates that women are also at risk for HIV infection not because they engage in risky sexual behavior, but because their partners do.

The study estimates that more than 90% of the 1.7 million women living in HIV in Asia became infected from their husbands or long-term partners.

Access needs to go viral, too

Laurindo Garcia, founder and chief executive of b-change, a social enterprise that aims to promote social change through technology, shared that use of the Internet and social networks among the gay community is nothing new. “It [use of social networks] has been around for more than 20 years. Before there was Facebook, there was ICQ, Internet chat rooms, among other things. It’s widespread because it’s easy to access and it’s private.”

“Social media may have increased volume. It can lead to having more sexual partners, but we cannot assume all these [sexual] interactions lead to HIV infection. There have been studies that show condom use is higher in casual sexual relationships,” said Garcia.

More important, said Garcia, to make access to information about sexual health online as well.

According to Garcia, Gay dating site, Planet Romeo, which has more than 115,000 users from the Philippines, has started making online sexual health counseling available in 4 major European countries.  “For now, the service is available in Europe, but it is a start.” –