MANILA, Philippines – Young people now make up the majority of new human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) diagnoses in the Philippines. Youth aged 15 to 24 accounted for an estimated 62% of all new HIV infections, according to the National Youth Commission (NYC).
“The NYC is extremely alarmed by the unprecedented spike in HIV infection among our youth. HIV/AIDS is one of the most urgent concerns facing the Filipino youth today,” NYC Chairperson Aiza Seguerra said on Saturday, November 26.
There are an estimated 29 new HIV infections reported daily. More than half of these infections – about 19 – are from the youth sector.
“HIV is preventable. We need to empower our young people with proper information and develop their life skills. Unprotected sex is the main driver of this epidemic. We have to enable the youth to make responsible decisions,” Seguerra added.
Since HIV was first reported in the Philippines in 1984, the epidemic has been described as “low and slow” with less than 1% of the general population affected by the virus.
Then the situation started to change in 2010 when new HIV infections began to skyrocket. In just over a 5-year period –from 2010-2015 – the Philippines reported over 20,000 new HIV infections. This is more than the total number of HIV cases reported in the Philippines from 1984 (when the first case of HIV was discovered in the country) to the early 2000s. (PODCAST: HIV epidemic in the PH)
While the Philippines remains a low-incidence country (HIV among the general population is less than 1%), health officials say that the country has a “concentrated epidemic” that needs close monitoring and urgent intervention among sectors most at risk like men who have sex with men (MSM), freelance sex workers, and in certain parts of Cebu, among people who inject drugs (PWID).
In 2015, the Department of Health (DOH) identified 6 cities where HIV could reach uncontrollable levels and predicted that if the current rate of infections persists, the total HIV infections in the Philippines could reach 133,000 by 2022 – or in just 6 years.
In partnership with DOH and the Department of Education (DepEd), the NYC will lead the development of an HIV information drive that target the youth.
Apart from creating awareness, these campaigns seek to correct HIV myths and misconceptions that put young people at risk.
Citing the results of the Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Survey (YAFS), NYC Commissioner Perci Cendana said that 30% of young people think that there is a cure for HIV/AIDS.
“If they think there is a cure or medication for HIV, they are likely not take the necessary measures to protect themselves like use a condom or get tested,” said Cendana in a mix of English and Filipino.
HIV, a virus that attacks and compromises the immune system, can be effectively managed and treated but not cured.
But access to proper information is just one hurdle young people face, stigma and discrimination as well as access to health services remain the bigger challenges exacerbated with prohibitions on the youth.
Under the current HIV law drafted in 1984, minors cannot get an HIV test without written consent from a parent or a guardian. Advocates have lambasted the law as “archaic” and unresponsive to the new face of the epidemic. The law is also incongruent to available new technologies in prevention and care.
Because of the high incidence of HIV among young people, NYC is advocating for HIV testing among young people aged 15 to 17 without parental consent.
“There is so much stigma and discrimination to access testing. We need to reach that point where testing is normalized,” said Cendana.
Destigmatizing HIV testing
Senator Risa Hontiveros who heads the Senate Committee on Health underwent a voluntary HIV testing at the Senate in a bid to destigmatize HIV testing.
“It’s a test that can spell life or death,” Hontiveros said.
“Early diagnosis leads to early treatment and saves lives. Prevention, early detection and treatment must be made available by the government. No one deserves a death sentence.
Early this year, Hontiveros filed Senate Bill No. 376 or the Philippine HIV-AIDS Policy Act to update the government’s HIV response framework. Among other provisions, the bill seeks to allow HIV testing among young people aged 15-17 without parental consent.
If passed, it will repeal Republic Act 8504 or the Philippine HIV AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998. – Rappler.com