Many are familiar with the story of Wanggo Gallaga—writer, poet, teacher, and one of the faces of the HIV/AIDS awareness campaign in the Philippines. It was at World AIDS Day in December 1, 2008 when the son of acclaimed film director Peque Gallaga publicly disclosed his HIV status. He found out in August of the same year that he was HIV positive (poz as they call it now); he was 29 years old then.
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In the months leading to the discovery of his HIV infection, he had contracted quite a number of ailments—ear infection, bronchitis, pneumonia, and meningitis, kidney failure, among others—and he was lucky enough to have survived them all. Finding out that he was HIV positive was the turning point in his life: he decided to completely change his lifestyle and be more cautious and conscious of his health. Thanks to the support of his family and friends, Gallaga, turning 40 this year, has been living a normal life—thriving in his career while staunchly advocating HIV/AIDS awareness. He’s a living testimony that there’s life after HIV.
Being aware of the risks, care and treatment of HIV/AIDS can certainly help save lives. Here are five important things you should know about this disease today:
HIV is still a growing epidemic
Data released by the Department of Health (DOH) shows that there are 40 new cases of HIV every day. In April 2019 alone, there were 840 newly confirmed HIV-positive individuals reported to the HIV/AIDS and ART Registry of the Philippines (HARP). Ninety-four percent (789) of the newly diagnosed were male. More than half of the cases (52 percent or 434) were 25 to 34 years old and 29 percent (240) were 15 to 24 years old at the time of the testing.
The report also shows that there’s a total of 66,303 confirmed HIV cases reported to the HARP from 1984 to April 2019. Ninety-four percent (62,134) of those diagnosed were male and 6 percent (4,158) were female; there were no data on sex for 11 cases.
At the time of diagnosis, more than half (51 percent or 33,811) were 25 to 34 years old while 18,831 (28 percent) were youth 15-24 years old. Seventy-five percent (49,827) of the total diagnosed cases in the Philippines were reported from January 2014 to April 2019. Twelve percent (7,827) of all reported cases had clinical manifestations of advanced infection at the time of reporting (WHO clinical stage 3 and 4).
The DOH and HIV/AIDS awareness advocates have always stressed in their campaigns: HIV is not a death sentence because there are now ways and means to control and treat it. A person with HIV can live a normal life provided that he is armed with the information that he needs.
HIV tests are quick, painless, and may even be free
“Diagnosis of HIV used to take a while when we were dependent on Confirmatory Tests (Western Blot), which took up to weeks before people with HIV were given care and started on medications,” recalls Dr. Kate Leyritana of Sustained Health Initiatives of the Philippines (SHIP), a non-stock, non-profit organization that offers high-quality, affordable HIV, and primary care directly to communities that need it most.
Nowadays, screening tests for HIV range from formal blood draws done at laboratory centers to rapid tests done by fingerstick at community centers, facilitated by peer educators and community-based motivators on the field. “The rapid tests yield results in two to five minutes, and enables the tester (usually a trained counselor) to provide immediate intervention and assistance. This method of active counseling, accompanying someone to a clinic, rather than handing out information on where to go, has been proven to prevent people who become lost to follow-up after testing positive,” says Dr. Leyritana.
Rapid tests, HIV screening tests, and HIV confirmatory tests are free when done at government centers and through community based methods. Private clinics and hospitals and laboratories may charge for HIV tests; costs vary.
According to data from the DOH-Epidemiology Bureau, only 44 percent of all people diagnosed with HIV from 2010 to 2015 were started on Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART). Based on the 2013 external evaluation of the health sector’s response to HIV in the Philippines, long turn-around time of confirmatory HIV testing is one of the identified barriers for prompt referral and management.
With the DOH Department Circular No.2016- 0l7l, “diagnostic and treatment centers were encouraged to immediately link people who have positive or reactive HIV screening tests [to treatment centers], while awaiting the HIV confirmatory test, to be able to address immediate medical concerns and to facilitate baseline health exams.”
Patients have access to free HIV medication
“We previously relied on international aid for our antiretroviral drugs, but we are currently shifting to self-sufficiency and are almost fully funded by the national government through the DOH,” notes Dr. Leyritana. “We also have access to the PhilHealth outpatient HIV and AIDS package, which serves as source of funding for medications. We have nine medication regimens freely available to us; we do wish to have more effective, better tolerated, and less toxic drugs, and we look forward to our health department’s procurement decisions to help us achieve that goal.”
Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act has strengthened HIV/AIDS campaign
President Rodrigo Duterte had signed into law Republic Act No. 11166 also known as the Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act,” replacing the 20-year-old Republic Act 8504. Under the new law, antiretroviral (ARV) treatment will be provided free of charge to all those diagnosed with HIV. ARV treatment helps control the viral load (or the amount of HIV in the blood of an HIV+ patient), preventing the disease from advancing to AIDS.
The new law also imposes heavier penalties against those who will discriminate, spread misinformation, or divulge confidential details about the status of a patient on media and social media. It likewise streamlines the Philippine National AIDS Council by reducing the number of government agencies involved, and will implement an intensified information and education campaign. The law also states that minors 15 and up are no longer required to secure parental consent before they could undergo an HIV test.
Using a condom is your first layer of protection
Prevention of the spreading of HIV virus infection continues to be a major concern. The 2015 Integrated HIV Behavioral & Serologic Surveillance conducted by the DOH’s Epidemiology Bureau shows that 27 percent of M/TSM (males and transgenders who have sex with males) respondents ages 15 and above did not use condom during sexual intercourse.
The main reasons cited for not using condom was unavailability (53 percent) and dislike for condom use (21 percent). Data also shows that 68 to 87 percent of the respondents have basic knowledge about HIV—the risks, the importance of protection (use of condom), and the misconceptions. Seventy-eight percent of the respondents, on the other hand, know where to get tested for HIV. Forty-seven percent feels at risk of having HIV, 78 percent never had themselves tested for HIV and only 14 percent got tested in the past 12 months. A total of 9,498 M/TSM were surveyed for the said study.
HIV and AIDS, and their corresponding impact on culture continue to be a strong talking point. Shows like iWant's Mga Batang Poz and festivals like the Film Development Council of the Philippines and EON Foundation's recently concluded Cinespectra hope to continue the conversation.
As Gallaga would always emphasize in his interviews and articles, it’s not enough being aware of HIV/AIDs. One should take proper health precautions. “The solution is simple. Abstain. If you cannot, then use a condom properly,” he says. “And you will be all right.”