MANILA - The Department of Health (DOH) is alerting the public about the rise of newly diagnosed HIV cases monitored in the month of March, warning that the number is just the tip of the iceberg and that it could rise if people at risk do not take preventive steps.
The National Epidemiology Center (NEC) said 498 individuals have been confirmed to be HIV-positive in March, 35 percent higher compared to the same period last year.
NEC director Dr. Eric Tayag said the number is the highest recorded since the DOH began to track new HIV cases monthly in 1984.
This brings this year's total of new cases to 1,432 and the cumulative total of cases in the Philippines at 17,948 since 1984.
"That translates to 16 cases every day. A decade ago, that’s only one new case every three days," Tayag said.
The DOH official said HIV prevalence is still low at less than one percent relative to the country’s population but warned about the implications of the increasing number of cases especially on the work force.
"It's still low prevalence but we have to act now kasi ayaw nating dumating doon na we cannot anymore reverse it," he said.
Most the cases in March were male at 95 percent. The 20-29 year age group had the most number of cases at 58 percent with 28 as the median age.
"Yung 20-29 [years-old], they represent the majority of cases that get HIV… It's the young people and this has implications sa work force natin because eventually the illness will catch up with them and they will not be productive and that will also be a burden," Tayag said.
Identified modes of transmission were sexual contact, 443 cases; needle sharing among injecting drug users, 54; and mother to child, 1.
Males having sex with other males remains the predominant type of sexual transmission at 86 percent.
Unprotected anal sex has the highest risk of transmitting HIV among males.
“Majority na ng new infections ngayon is males having sex with males. If we look at our data, tumaas kasi yung number or proportion ng males who have sex with males who engage in unprotected anal sex. May pinakamataas kasi na risk sa sexual behavior is anal sex. It’s the receptive more than the insertive but both gives you risk,” Tayag says.
Around 81% of the new HIV cases in March came from the NCR, Region 7, Region 4A, Region 3 and Region 6.
Most of the cases reported in March (89%) were still asymptomatic, which means the carrier does not exhibit symptoms.
"We have already alerted that this is to grow more. In fact, it's just a matter of time before we breach ‘yung 500 new HIV cases every day. Nasa 498 na tayo. And we are also appealing to those who are at risk na magpa-test na. So that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are many of those who are at risk na they don’t know their HIV status,” Tayag said.
“While we are saying na mataas siya at lalo pang tataas, marami pa ang undetected because they don't know. Because they can only report those who get tested and those who have results. Otherwise, wala ka doon sa aming statistics."
This is why the DOH is urging those who are most at risk of acquiring the HIV to get tested early.
"For very few weeks, mayroon silang tinatawag na may flu-like symptoms then it disappears, the virus hides, goes into latency na tinatawag, chronic infection 'yun. It can go on for so many years, ten years. So that person na na-infect, hindi niya alam ha na na-infect siya but he knows he is at risk but hindi siya nagpa-test. Wala siyang mararamdaman, he looks normal, he goes to works, goes to school.
"But darating 'yung panahon the immune system, the immune cells, are destroyed. Maapektuhan na siya so wala na siyang panlaban sa mga common infections. Doon mag-uumpisa nang lumabas ang manifestations and by that time, it's too late," Tayag said.
There is still no cure for HIV-AIDS but Tayag said early treatment can delay the progression of the virus to AIDS and slow down the damage to the body’s immune system.
AIDS testing in the country is voluntary.
The DOH is speaking to legislators about the possibility of allowing medical practitioners offer HIV-testing to patients who are exposed to risk factors.
Tayag said patients can opt-out and choose not to take the test if they do not want to.
"Ibig sabihin, any adult or even a minor with the consent of the parent or guardian who presents himself sa isang health facility for whatever health reasons will be offered a test. 'Opt out,' if they don't like, hindi gagawin ang test," he said.
"Because the AIDS law, sa ngayon, voluntary lang ang testing, anonymous after counseling. But because of the rising numbers, we want people to be tested early. But what we want is why get the test when you can prevent it para hindi ka magkaroon ng HIV."
Besides taking the test, people at risk of acquiring HIV are told to use condoms if they could not abstain from sex and learn more about HIV and AIDS.
Tayag also pointed out that many people continue to believe in myths about the spread of HIV, falsely believing that it can be transmitted through mosquito bites.
"While mosquitoes bite us and suck blood, they cannot infect us with HIV kasi HIV will not survive in a mosquito. So kalimutan niyo na ‘yun. It's the exchange of body fluids that gives rise to the transmission and spread of HIV. And ang number one dyan is sexual intercourse," he said.
Tayag said that being faithful is not enough guarantee against HIV. This has to be coupled with an awareness that the virus could be transmitted by other means such as needle sharing.
"For example, you're faithful, you're loving. Hindi mo alam e yung partner mo nagdo-droga. Mag-inject ng drug e na-infect siya. What does love got to do with it? Wala. Faithful ka nga, iba yung mode of transmission so mahahawa ka rin eventually," Tayag said.
Oral sex is not also a safe alternative to anal sex.
"While anal sex is riskier, oral sex without the condoms is also a risk although much, much lower," Tayag said.
Medication could also be costly and drugs have side effects.
While Philhealth pays P30,000 every year for HIV medication and diagnostics, it does not cover medications for patients that are already drug-resistant.
"These medicines, you have to take for life. If you don't, it's not even recommended that you start. And these medications are not cheap, in the long run, and they're not without side effects. In fact, those who not adhere to the daily schedule or kung ano mang daily schedule, default kasi of the side effects,” Tayag said.
"Baka isipin nila, it’s alright. Government will give me free medication and these medications will prolong my life. No. Don’t even think that. Because for that to work, you have to religiously take it, you always get the supply, you don’t suffer from side effects and you do not develop drug resistance. So it's not as simple as total may gamot naman e. That’s also a myth.”
Tayag said acquiring HIV is not a death sentence since progression to AIDS can be delayed.
"Myth din naman na kapag nag-positive ka, death sentence, no. Baka ang ikamatay mo pa e accident, o kaya heart attack not related sa HIV. Kasi it’s a long process, ‘yung HIV before you get into AIDS."