[Dash of SAS] What to know about HIV in PH

Ana P. Santos

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[Dash of SAS] What to know about HIV in PH
Charlie Sheen's recent revelation that he is living with HIV is bringing back the topic into the public conversation

MANILA, Philippines – With Charlie Sheen going on TV to disclose his HIV status, HIV has become a topic of discussion again.

Let me contextualize that: in the last 30 years since HIV was first detected, there has been significant progress in preventing the spread of the virus.

Globally, the rate of new infections and deaths due to AIDS-related complications has dropped. Through advancements in anti-retroviral therapy, those who have HIV can live longer productive lives. HIV is no longer the death sentence it was when it was first detected.

At the 2014 AIDS Conference in Melbourne, fast track strategies were laid out to end HIV by 2030. In just 30 years – one lifetime – scientific advancements and discoveries have brought us to a point where we can talking about ending HIV.

That’s one side of the story.

The other side is that HIV is no longer the public health emergency it once was. In terms of media focus, HIV has given way to more urgent and pressing issues like climate change and urban terrorism.

HIV infects over 22 Filipinos everyday

But in the Philippines, our HIV outbreak is just starting. The Philippines is one of the 9 remaining countries in the world where HIV continues to rise. Here are some things we should know about the state of HIV in the Philippines:

In the Philippines, there are 22 new HIV infections reported every day. In 2010, there were only 4 new HIV infections reported daily.

In just the last 5 years, the rate of HIV infection in the Philippines has increased by over 200%. The World Health Organization has described the Philippines as having the fastest growing epidemic in the world.


The 2013 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Survey showed that over 43% of young people think that HIV can be transmitted by sharing food with someone who is HIV+. Only 17% of Filipino youth surveyed had correct information about HIV.

HIV cannot be transmitted by sharing utensils or by kissing – no matter how intense.

HIV is a virus that needs a carrier to transfer from one person to another. These carriers are body fluids like blood, breast milk, semen, and vaginal fluids. Without these carriers, HIV cannot live outside the body.

However, the case of blood is slightly different. Blood that is infected with HIV may be stored inside a needle or a syringe and transferred, making it one of the most efficient ways of transmitting the virus.

The rapid spread of HIV in Cebu is attributed to injecting drugs and sharing of needles. Before 2010, less than 1% of persons who inject drugs (PWID) in Cebu were HIV+. Now, that number is estimated to be more than 50%.

A combination of factors: criminalization of possession and distribution of syringes and prohibiting needle exchange programs have contributed to a dramatic increase of PWID who are HIV+.

HIV is not the same as AIDS

HIV is human immunodeficiency virus. It is a virus that weakens the immune system by attacking T-cells that fight off disease. HIV is not curable, but it is manageable. If you are infected you will have HIV for life, but it can be controlled by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and through anti-retroviral therapy.

AIDS is the final stage of the HIV infection. The immune system is weakened and becomes vulnerable to opportunistic infections like pneumonia or tuberculosis. Not everyone who has HIV advances to the AIDS stage.

HIV. The news that Charlie Sheen is living with HIV is renewing the conversation on HIV internationally and in the Philippines. Image courtesy of Ernest Fiestan

Anyone can have HIV

It is a common misconception that you can tell if someone has HIV just by looking at them. A related misconception is that someone who is pretty or gwapo (handsome) cannot be infected with HIV.

That is not true.

Anyone can be infected with HIV. A middle-aged Hollywood actor who is also a father – someone like Charlie Sheen – can be infected with HIV. Young people can be infected with HIV and even women who are in long-term monogamous relationships can be positive for HIV.

The number of young people in the Philippines infected with HIV is increasing. According to the Department of Health (DOH), the proportion of people living with HIV (PLHIV) between the ages of 15-24 increased from 20% (2005-2009) to 28% (2010-2015). 

A person can live with HIV

The correct term for someone with HIV is person living with HIV. They are not called “AIDS victim” or “AIDS patients.” If you think about it, the choice of words is very deliberate – person living with HIV.

“Person” because anyone can be infected and “living with HIV” because those who are positive for HIV can live long, productive and normal lives. Words empower people, but they can also alienate, exclude and stigmatize. Let’s choose our words well.

Because we know what causes HIV, we can know how to protect ourselves. There is a acronym that is often used in HIV 101 classes called ABCD.

A: Abstain from sex.

B: Be faithful. Limit sexual partners.

C: Condomize. Use condoms correctly and consistently.

D: Don’t use or inject drugs.

We can also add E: Educate yourself.

Know as much as you can about HIV, how to protect yourself, how to take care of and be considerate of those living with HIV. Knowledge is power. And understanding leads to acceptance. It is not hate that discriminates – it’s ignorance. – Rappler.com

Ana P. Santos is a former banker turned public health journalist focusing on women’s issues and sexual health rights. It’s a mouthful and for the most part, she’s simply referred to as a “sex columnist.” She blogs (and rants) at www.sexandsensibilities.com and tweets @iamAnaSantos.

HIV/AIDS is a problem in many communities – both rural and urban – across the Philippines. Responding to our communities’ concern about the issue, Rappler’s MovePH is launching a campaign to promote awareness on the issue. Follow our stories through the hashtags #StayNegatHIVe #LivePositive

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Ana P. Santos

Ana P. Santos is an investigative journalist who specializes in reporting on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and migrant worker rights.