WHO urges PH to 'give more attention' to growing number of HIV-AIDS cases

MANILA, Philippines – World Health Organization (WHO) Western Pacific regional director Dr Shin Young-soo urged the Philippine government to “seriously consider" the growing number of people living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV-AIDS).

Young-soo said the Philippine numbers are the “fastest growing” in the Asia Pacific.

“The Philippines has to take [this] very seriously, because the Philippines is the only country in the region, and maybe beyond, where HIV is increasing,” he said in a press briefing Monday, October 8, held on the sidelines of the WHO Western Pacific region’s 69th committee meeting

Data from the Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC) showed as many as 32 people are diagnosed with HIV-AIDS every day. The number is a stark contrast to only two new cases reported daily in 2008, 13 in 2013, and 22 in 2015.

WHO representative to the Philippines Dr Gundo Weiler said the country has seen a “very high increase” of about 140% in the last 6 to 8 years. The findings come against the backdrop of a global decrease in the number of new cases, where overall number of new infections has gone down by 20%.

“Rapid increase is a very bad sign. The government must give more attention. It’s a touchy issue, but we don’t want to just be hiding things and pretending because it’s confined to a high-risk group,” Young-soo said.

According to the WHO and PNAC, majority of new cases recorded among Filipinos are among males who have sex with males, which the Department of Health (DOH) refers to as MSMs. This does not only cover gay men, but also any male who has sex with another male for whatever reason.

Majority of the new cases in the Philippines as of July 2018 were also HIV infections transmitted sexually. This topped the number of cases as compared to other means of acquiring the infection, such as sharing contaminated needles or from birth should a mother be infected with HIV.

“Anything can happen…. It can be the general population sooner or later,” Young-soo said.

Lack of awareness, stigma remains: According to Gundo, one of the biggest challenges the Philippines faces in tackling HIV-AIDS is the lack of awareness of the diseases among communities.

“People do not feel sufficiently HIV is an issue for them or can be an important issue for them, so there is still a lack of awareness about how widespread HIV infection is and about the risks that exists for people to become exposed to the virus,” he said.

Gundo also pointed out the lack of awareness is also seen in how “too many people” still engage in unsafe sexual behavior across the country.

“It’s going to be a real priority to make sure the issue is realized and recognized by the whole population so they can adopt safety measures,” he said. (INFOGRAPHIC: How is HIV transmitted?)

In addition to this, stigma surrounding the issue and discrimination against people living with HIV-AIDS remains. According to Gundo, myths that surround the disease, as well as the fact that it is linked to taboos on sexuality, prevent people from getting tested and having a better understanding the risks of the disease. (READ: Orgies and Tinder: Millennials are having sex, some with a deadly price)

He added, of the estimated 80,000 people living with HIV-AIDS, a maximum of only half would be actually aware they had the disease.

“That’s a real problem because people who are unaware of their own infection put their own health in danger…. We have a whole range of interventions on the health side, so treatment is available and there is increasing number of clinics that provide treatment for HIV in the country, but we do have a lack of people who come forward to seek treatment,” he said.

PNAC earlier warned that unless steps are taken, the number of Filipinos living with HIV-AIDS will exceed a quarter of a million by 2030.

Open discussion: As “baseline effort,” Gundo recommended the government and communities step up efforts to openly discuss HIV-AIDS. This, so that individuals can adopt protective measures, such as observing safe sexual behavior, and seek treatment if they are infected. (READ: How can we help end the negative impact of HIV?)

"We have the means to control the infection in people very well.... It's an infection that can be controlled with medication and those who are infected with HIV can live a normal life with only one pill per day – as easy as that. But those who are not getting treatment would have their health rapidly deteriorating," he said.

He added, “At the end of the day, its about protecting families and friends and young people. I think the best way to go about it is to have an open discussion about the different ways that are effective and proven." – Rappler.com 

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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