[OPINION | DASH of SAS] Better police handling, media coverage of drugs and HIV needed

Ana P. Santos
[OPINION | DASH of SAS] Better police handling, media coverage of drugs and HIV needed
We can all do our part in easing the stigma of HIV and creating a less hostile environment both for people who use drugs and people living with HIV

First, the facts.

On Monday, November 27, 11 men were arrested in a hotel in Bonifacio Global City for drug possession and drug use. The men were reported to have in their possession an estimated P387,000 worth of illegal drugs that included 40 tablets of ecstasy, two sachets of crystal meth (shabu), and 14 bottles of gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) or what is known as liquid ecstasy.

It was deemed a successful drug bust operation. The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) presented the suspects to the media.

Details about the suspects that were shared on social media and in news reports included: mugshots with complete name of suspects, profession or industries they work in. One suspect was reported to be living with HIV and the others were then reported to be possibly infected.

The news broke last night on networks, social media, and chat rooms. Public health advocates and members of the LGBT community decried the police and media coverage of the case.

Promoting stigma and discrimination

Why the uproar? What was so problematic about the handling of this drug bust?

“The arrest was done in good faith and with cause. But what raised red flags was the treatment and public outing of the PLHIV (person living with HIV),” said Jayce Perlas, an HIV advocate.

“I found it offensive that they made one suspect admit he was HIV positive, named him and even made a sweeping generalization that all of them are possibly positive and how they could infect others.”

“Equally shocking is how some people in the gay community found nothing wrong in the proceedings and even condemned the suspects. Advocates have done so much to erase stigma, now a PLHIV is the bogeyman again,” lamented Perlas.

Additionally, the messaging and choice of words in news reports perpetuated the stigma about HIV that prevent people from getting tested and seeking treatment. Along with consistent condom use, HIV testing and anti-retroviral therapy (ART) are the two interventions that have been scientifically proven to be successful in curbing the spread of HIV infections.

One news report stated that “malamang contaminado na silang lahat” or “they are all probably contaminated now”.

That is inaccurate. HIV can only be transmitted through unprotected sex, sharing of infected needles and from HIV+ pregnant mothers to their baby.

If you are tested, go on ART and diligently follow your regimen, a PLHIV’s viral load (the level of the HIV virus tested in your blood) can reach undetectable levels. The premise is if the HIV virus is undetectable, it is untransmissable.

In short, ART can cut virus levels to a point of up to 96% or where a PLHIV cannot transmit the virus to another person.

UNAIDS released a list of terminology guidelines and language tips which discourage inflammatory words with derogatory connotations like “contaminate”.

Consider the connotations of “contaminate” versus a more neutral word like ‘transmission” of HIV. (READ: Making Effective HIV & AIDS Information Materials)

Secondly, the sharing of the mugshots and complete names of the suspects triggered a social media witch hunt to track the men down. Now cruel memes have begun to circulate in frenzy.

Particularly distressing is how the mugshots are being shared as a warning about these individuals as if they were armed people running loose and dangerous. This is discriminatory and disproportionate.

“The group involved in the arrest are what we call part of the ‘alter world’. These are discrete MSM (men who have sex with men). They need a safe and anonymous place to express their sexuality,” said Roberto Figuracion Jr, an area coordinator for Family Planning Organization of the Philippines (FPOP) in Iloilo.

The group is extremely hard to identify and reach out to. Health workers like Figuracion spend a lot of time gaining the trust of these groups and using access to community events like pageants, clan eyeballs, and Party n Play parties to introduce HIV 101 and condom use lessons.

This kind of public shaming will drive this group deeper into hiding, further away from crucial HIV prevention interventions. It will further demonize drug use and likewise prevent people who use drugs from seeking care and support.

The handling of the case also violated certain provisions on confidentiality and discrimination stipulated in RA 8504 or the AIDS Prevention and Control Act.

What could have been done better

Jazz Tamayo, a lawyer for LGBT rights group Rainbow Rights acknowledged the PDEA’s fulfillment of its mandate but said that the case handling and media coverage were excessive and went beyond what was legally relevant.

“There was just too much information released to the public. I understand the need to disclose details of the case like kind and amount of drugs found at the scene and even the information about the health risks of trends like chemrom (chemical romance) parties, but there was no need to disclose details like profession, places of employment, HIV status and (presumed) sexual orientation of the suspects. These do not add value to the case,” explained Tamayo.

Tamayo also expressed concern about the disclosure of one suspect’s HIV status and the presumption that all suspects have HIV. “How did the authorities arrive at the conclusion that all of them have HIV?” asked Tamayo.

Under the law, HIV tests are done on a strictly voluntary basis with clear requirements of pre-test counselling and informed consent. Results of HIV tests are, likewise, treated with strict confidentiality.

Rappler reached out to PDEA Executive Director Aaron Aquino who said that the suspect told one of his officers that he was HIV positive. According to Aquino, the officer was telling the suspects that their behavior was risky.

According to another source, the suspect admitted his HIV status when he was asked to identify the “drugs” he had in his possession which turned out to be new generation antibiotics and ART tablets.

However, according to Tamayo, disclosure to one person of one’s HIV status does not authorize disclosure to the public. Doing so is violation of the HIV law.

Ideally, the mugshots of suspects and employment details should not have been released. Neither should there have been pronouncements about their HIV status or sexual history. This could lead them to being discriminated against on account of their presumed HIV status. They could lose their jobs or be expelled from school.

Tamayo reminded employers and schools that the HIV law explicitly prohibits discrimination based on HIV status or presumed HIV status.

Aquino could no longer be reached for further comment but had earlier said that releasing mugshots and names of suspects were all part of standard operating procedure (SOP). He also said that the suspects had undergone drug tests and tested positive.

If this is what we consider SOP for the treatment and arrest of suspects, then we should perhaps take a step back and re-evaluate the ramifications of what happened and consider a public health approach rather than punitive approach to illegal drugs.

This is a learning moment for everyone, the media, and law enforcement. We can all do our part in easing the stigma of HIV and creating a less hostile environment both for people who use drugs and people living with HIV. An environment where they will want to access services and intervention because they will feel safe.

“As advocates…we have to stand against the basic violations of human dignity that were perpetrated here. We cannot be angry about the disclosure of HIV status alone, but not care about the way these men were treated as drug suspects,” Mara Quesada, executive director of ACHIEVE posted on Facebook.

“Remember that when we allow the violation of one human right, we allow the violation of all human rights. If we accept the inhuman treatment of one person, even a drug user, we allow the degradation of all humanity,” Quesada concluded. – Rappler.com

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