MANILA -- The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can no longer rob you of a long, happy, and normal life -- unless you let it.
An HIV-positive diagnosis may have been considered a death sentence back in the '80s, but in the 21st century, a single prick on your finger can give you (and your loved ones) power over it.
"One may unfortunately have been infected, but it’s not the end of the world, they can still live a normal life. A positive person no longer has to suffer life-limiting implications. The important thing is to get tested and diagnosed early," Desi Andrew Ching, executive director of HIV & AIDS Support House (HASH), explained.
HASH, a non-profit organization committed to aiding the biopsychosocial issues in the positive community, is urging everyone to join the fight against HIV.
For national testing week, the organization, in collaboration with the Pink Film Festival, is conducting free HIV testing at UPFI Film Center -Cine Adarna on November 19-21, from 2pm to 9pm.
Within 10-15 minutes, participants will get results which the organization assures will be kept confidential. Knowing your HIV status, regardless of the outcome, is a step towards protecting your future.
While HIV does not show immediate symptoms, if left untreated, it could lead to life-threathening conditions. The retrovius reduces the CD4 cells (T cells) to a critical level, making the immune system weak and susceptible to infections and other diseases such as tuberculosis, pnemonia, and others.
But the good news is, with regular medication and proper care, the retrovirus can be supressed and brought down to an undetectable level.
Ching himself was diagnosed with HIV in 2007. It was however, only in 2010 when he sought treatment.
"It took me three years. I could have died actually... But luckily, my CD4 count was still at 200 plus. Thanks to treatment, up until now it has not not dropped below that," Ching recalled.
Within his first year of taking the prescriptions, the retrovirus in Ching's system was already undetectable.
"I go by my life normally. That's what we want to happen. We want to diagnose people as early as possible," he shared.
But on top of paving for a comfortable life, getting tested and seeking treatment will also help end the epidemic.
The same anti-retroviral (ARV) programs use for treatment also function as a preventive method. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if the viral load is "undetectable" or too low to be measured, the virus can no longer be transmitted.
"It is actually scarier to have an encounter with someone you don't know than someone who is admittedly HIV positive who is undetectable. As long as you are undetectable you cannot infect anyone else with the virus," Ching explained
With talks on HIV still largely considered taboo in the country, the retrovirus is unfortunately spreading faster than the awareness.
Despite medical technology acquiring the power to prevent the spread of the infection, the Philippines has the fastest growing HIV epidemic in Asia and the Pacific.
According to the HIV/AIDS and Art Registry of the Philippines (HARP), an average of 32 seropositive Filipinos are reported every day -- a huge leap from 2009, when only about two Filipinos were recorded to have a positive diagnosis daily.
"Whatever good we are doing now, if we dont double or triple our efforts, according to the Epidemology Bureau, the numbers will keep greatly increasing" Ching said.
According to HARP, there are at present 59,135 HIV positive individuals in the country. Of these, 954 were newly diagnosed in the month of September 2018 alone.
"We really need to push that testing will prevent the spread. If we don’t start diagnosing people we are not going to treat people. If we don't treat people, it will continue to infect more, " Ching said.
Some 19 percent of the newly diagnosed members of the positive community already had clinical manifestations of advance HIV (WHO stage 3 or 4) at the time they got tested.
Just this year, 459 lives have already been claimed by HIV. But despite the serious health risks, many choose to remain untested -- especially those at higher risk.
Sexual contact remains to be the predominant mode of HIV transmission and is more common with males who have sex with males (MSMs). Majority or 94 percent of the positive community screened from 1984 consist of men.
In September 2018, 98 percent individuals infected by the virus through sexual contact -- and 84 percent were MSMs.
"It is actually harder to convince those who are higher risk to get tested. Heterosexual men and women are more likely to get tested than males who have sex with males (MSM)," Ching identified.
The HIV advocate noted that the biggest stumbling block for HIV testing are the the false information surrounding the infection.
Ching cited that most people hesistate to get tested because they are "more afraid" of the side effects of the medicine than the complications of an untreated infection.
"In our study in 2014 with UNDP, we found that people don't get tested because they are afraid of the side effects. It is the driving fear," he said.
One of the most commonly reported symptom in positive community is "hilo" or dizziness. Ching, however, insisted the unwanted effect is manageable, if at all felt.
"Some would just experience it just during first week to few days. Some would for years. If they are not properly managed it may go on indefintely. But it should be managed closely with the doctor," he said.
In the case of Ching, he was among the many other individuals who did not suffer from any side effect.
"People have to understand all meds have a side effect and every person experiences different reactions to them," Ching added.
Ching also guaranteed that HASH will help the positive community find the suitable treatment for them.
"We work on HIV screening and link those reactive cases to treatment centers. We do case management at a community level. We have case managers to assist. Outside the clinic, we try to co-manage the cases. If they have issues or concerns we try to help them out," Ching reassured.
HIV, being rarely talked about, leaves most newly diagnosed patients unaware of what to do next after screening.
That is where HASH steps in.
"After the clinic, more often than not they don't have people to turn to. So we try to help them with financial assistance, navigating the system, social sevices, and the like," Ching encouraged.
Apart from medical services, HASH is also dedicated in fighting the stigma.
The organization was established in 2013, with the motive of addressing the gaps in the entire HIV cascade.
"At around 2011-2012, we noticed that a number of our friends started dying. Our president now and I checked things out and found there were issues around treatment programs, services rendered, the protocol. There was stigma at the service provider level, stigma at the positive community level as well. Thats where we started we have to come up with something," Ching recalled.
Ching, however, reiterated that most of these issued had already been remedied. "It is not as common anymore, the misconceptions," he said.
Despite this, discrimination is still experienced by some of the members of the community. For Ching, instead of fearing it, they should fight it.
"Within the last 10 days, HASH assisted in settling rwo illegal dismissal cases. They were fired upon finding out their status," he said.
While discrimination still occurs, it is also an opportunity to end it. HASH offers legal assistance to those who had been wrongly victimized due to their HIV status.
"We try to empower them. We have to fight the stigma. I understand the possible disclosure is scary for some but if we don't it will happen again," Ching reasoned.
Apart from the concrete services, HASH is also campaigning against the false information circulating HIV.
"The thought of them encountering the stigma na wala pa first hand or kakilala, it's a big road block for people in the community," he said.
One misconcption is that pregnant HIV-positive mothers will certainly transmit the virus to her child. While possible, the chances are low provided they receive the proper care.
"In the past month, HASH successfully delivered six healthy babies from HIV-positive mothers. None of them were infected. That is why we encourage all expecting mothers to be screened," he said.
HASH emphasized that a person does not need to be part of a program to help spread awareness and fight the stigma: sharing correct information and bringing down misconceptions or false information on HIV are one of the little acts that can create a big impact.
"The fact that one person is able to talk to another person with HIV, is a huge help already. HIV as a topic has been long been taboo. It doesn't have to be on a macro scale, nor do you have to be in a program. You can start with a conversation or through a social media post," the HASH director explained.
In small ways, the epidemic can be ended. But before you can save the future of the world from the virus, you must first save yourself and get tested.
"Get tested then encourage your friends to get tested, regardless if they are high or low risk... if you get one person tested positive or negative, it is one life saved," Ching urged.