[OPINION] I’m complicit in the rise of the HIV epidemic – and so are you

Alexander Adia
[OPINION] I’m complicit in the rise of the HIV epidemic – and so are you
I am not writing this to blame anyone. Instead, I invite you to be part of the solution.

The rising HIV epidemic has no room for bystanders. Every day, 31 people are newly diagnosed with HIV, more than doubling the number just 5 years ago. Young people are a disproportionately burdened group, and the epidemic is affecting younger and younger age groups over time.

While the new improvements to the HIV and AIDS Policy Act is currently being considered by President Duterte’s administration, we need to think about the social influence that broader Philippine society can have in shifting the tide against the rising cases of HIV. Stigma surrounding HIV, including beliefs that having HIV is a sin or that people living with HIV should be isolated and avoided, dehumanizes people living with the disease and worsens the epidemic by making people afraid of getting tested. In an age where HIV is effectively treatable, symptoms do not kill; the stigma does. As such, we have a collective duty to educate ourselves about HIV, correct others when they spread false and discriminatory information, and take steps to support initiatives designed to reduce societal stigma. If we don’t, we are complicit in this stigmatization too.

Researchers and NGOs are doing great work to combat stigma by continuing to serve as a voice for people stigmatized by HIV. Each one of us has an important role too in amplifying messages that can help reduce/eradicate societal discrimination too. Waiting for policymakers, aid organizations, and academics to deliver solutions simply is not realistic. Political capital is slowly spent, published research is disseminated slowly, and interventions take time to improve and refine. 

Believe me, as a researcher, I wish research could act faster. I, along with researchers at Brown University and the University of the Philippines, Manila, published an academic study on stigma in the Philippines when there were only a few papers discussing the topic at the time. However, community-based organizations who serve people living with HIV could have told you years earlier how harmful the stigmatization of HIV is. The burden of fighting for HIV education and against stigmatizing beliefs should not fall solely on the shoulders of those affected by the epidemic, necessitating broader societal action in order to achieve the success we need against HIV. 

I am not writing this to blame anyone. Instead, I invite you to be part of the solution. Several small changes that can be made in everyday life can go a long way in combatting the rise of the HIV epidemic.

First, we need to normalize HIV testing as part of all sexual health programs. Currently, getting regularly tested is seen as admitting to behavior viewed as improper. This is unacceptable and drives people away from a process that helps people get treated earlier and reduces the risk of infections that come after late diagnoses. By embracing regular HIV testing (through policies and social norms) by not making assumptions of others when they choose to get tested, we can destigmatize the testing process in a way that can help people get diagnose and treated earlier. 

Second, taking some time to educate ourselves about HIV can demystify a condition that is as treatable as any other. Taking antiretroviral therapy as directed ensures that people with HIV live as long as those who are HIV-negative. Many people believe that an HIV-positive diagnosis is a death sentence, but this is a false and incredibly harmful misconception when there are treatment that can be easily accessed and available when these barriers are addressed. Believing that prevention can be achieved through abstinence-based programs is naive and will only worsen the epidemic. Only programs based around practicing safe sex, including usage of condoms, can stop the rising tide of HIV diagnoses. Rather than pontificate to you about moral values, I will defer to the evidence, which disproportionately shows that abstinence-only programs are ineffective. Condoms are an important tool in fighting HIV and other diseases. We are keeping people away from using them if we stigmatize their everyday use and fail to support condom-based programs.

Third, we need to support community-based organizations, and the innovations and services they provide in combatting the current epidemic. Many organizations have already contributed invaluable knowledge in informing interventions and policies, including the new amendments to the HIV law. As the HIV epidemic worsens, they need support and funding more than ever to keep providing health services and advocacy. Through my research and at the 22nd International AIDS Conference, I have spoken with leaders at several of these community-based organizations, including PinoyPlus, TLF Share, HIV & AIDS Support House, and Team Dugong Bughaw. All of these organizations are taking steps to improve the lives of people living with HIV or reduce the burden among key subpopulations. Learning about these organizations and those like them in your area, and participating in their efforts to improve the outlook of the epidemic helps to sustain the grassroots efforts to tackle the epidemic. 

If everyone who reads this article does these simple steps, those at risk for and living with HIV will be much better off. Approaching the rising tide of HIV with empathy, compassion, and a willingness to act can make a strong difference in the alarming trend of HIV diagnoses. We have a responsibility to do our part and an obligation to listen to those impacted by the epidemic. If we fulfill these, we can build a stronger and more hopeful outlook for the current HIV epidemic. – Rappler.com

Alexander Adia is a student and researcher at the Brown University School of Public Health. He leads Project Ilaw, a research initiative focused on the HIV epidemic in the Philippines. He can be reached at alexander_adia@brown.edu.

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