MANILA, Philippines – Illegal and ineffective.
This was how the Network to Stop AIDS Philippines described mandatory HIV testing – a move being considered by the Department of Health (DOH) because of the increasing number of HIV cases in the Philippines.
For the network, choosing mandatory testing when there are other more effective interventions shows Health Secretary Enrique Ona’s incompetence.
"It has to be said: isa sa magiging legacy ni Secretary Ona at ng Aquino administration ay ang isang HIV epidemic sa ating bansa, at 'yan ay dahil sa kanyang kawalan ng prioritization sa ating HIV epidemic, at dahil sa kanyang mga maling polisiya...para sa ating HIV programs,” Jonas Bagas, executive director of the TLF Sexuality, Health and Rights Educators Collective (TLF SHARE Collective), said in a press conference Wednesday, May 14.
(It has to be said: one of the legacies of Secretary Ona and the Aquino administration will be the HIV epidemic in the country because of the lack of prioritization when it comes to the HIV epidemic, as well as the wrong policies for our HIV programs.)
Ona “embarrasses the Aquino administration,” he said, as the secretary zeroes in on mandatory testing instead of considering other options such as community-led testing and a national HIV awareness campaign.
The Philippines is one of 3 countries in Asia and one of only 7 countries in the world with a growing HIV epidemic. The country recorded an 820-percent increase in a span of 9 years – from 173 cases in 2001 to 1,591 cases in 2010.
Health Assistant Secretary Eric Tayag said in a television interview last May 5 that Ona “would want to shift from voluntary testing to something that's compulsory.”
But Republic Act 8504 or the Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998 clearly states “no compulsory HIV testing shall be allowed.” Instead, the State "shall encourage voluntary testing for individuals with a high risk for contracting HIV.”
Aside from being illegal, Bagas said the move is also ineffective as it would result in a “witch hunt” in the community. (READ: Love in the time of HIV)
"Once mandatory testing is imposed, the question now is who will be required to undergo testing? Based on evidence we have, the epidemic is concentrated among men having sex with men and transgenders, yet we know their sexual behaviors are complex. The sexual behaviors are complex, and the solution they want to impose is very simplistic, unrealistic, and flawed," he said in a mix of English and Filipino.
As it is, Filipinos already find it hard to reveal their HIV status, Bagas said. With stigma and discrimination still existing in our society, mandatory testing will only “drive people underground” and make it harder for communities to encourage voluntary testing, he added.
"Once you make it mandatory, people will hide because they know it can lead to persecution, abuse, or discrimination," he said in a mix of English and Filipino.
Drew Garcia of support group RedX said there is also a steady decline in the use of anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) in the country, based on reports the group has been receiving.
ARVs are medicines used to “maximally" suppress the HIV virus, stopping the progression gf the disease.
Instead of going mandatory, the network urged the health department to channel its resources to community-led testing, like in the case of Quezon City, where clinics provide services after-office hours to cater to Filipinos in the workforce.
Dr Rolly Cruz, HIV/STI coordinator of the Quezon City health department, said half of their patients actually come from northern and southern provinces "because our services do not discriminate and are voluntary.”
Mara Bondad, executive director of Action for Health Initiatives (ACHIEVE), said they will file a case against DOH and will call for the resignation of Ona if the department pursues mandatory HIV testing.
"If you cannot effectively prevent the spread of HIV in the country by using evidence, by looking at good examples, then maybe leave that post, leave that seat and give it to somebody who can do something better,” she added.
Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.