MANILA (UPDATED) — Promotion of condom use should be personalized for key sectors, a health official said, to better combat the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
"Focused promotion" is the Department of Health's (DOH) preferred approach than promoting on a large scale, said HIV prevention program manager Dr. Jose Gerard Belimac.
"Ang messenger namin, hindi mass media so it's a person [who does the promotion]. We train community volunteers or peer educators, na nagre-reach out," Belimac said.
(Our messengers are people, not the mass media. We train community volunteers or peer educators, who reach out to others.)
This makes their campaigns for reproductive health and disease prevention more personalized and targeted, he said.
This approach is supported by the National Youth Commission (NYC), considering the rising incidents of HIV infection among the youth.
According to Percival Cendano, commissioner of the NYC, it is important to think of the rights that the youth and LGBT communities are entitled to.
"Sa dulo, masmahalaga ang rights (In the end, it is our rights that matter). Young people have a right to health," he said.
The NYC is working with the health department in mapping out how to better invest in peer education and provide a support system for young Filipinos who want to be able to undergo HIV testing and receive reproductive health services.
Currently, minors are not allowed to undergo testing or avail of condoms without the consent of their parents.
"The only way to halt infection is to stop the infection from 15-24… Ang hirap na nga mag-out sa parents na gay ka, mas mahirap sabihin na ‘Samahan niyo po akong magpa-test,'" Cendano said.
The "personalized" approach differs from that of private entities such as DKT International, a non-profit organization which markets a variety of contraceptives including condoms, which advertises on "traditional" platforms such as billboards and mass media in addition to implementing communication campaigns.
In recent years, DKT also started to explore event sponsorships, and educational events to spread its message of reproductive health, HIV/AIDS awareness, and battle stigma against condoms and contraceptives in general.
In its qualitative report "Fueling the Philippines' HIV Epidemic: Government Barriers to Condom Use by Men Who Have Sex with Men," Human Rights Watch (HRW) detailed difficulties DKT encountered in advertising their products in the Philippines.
Advertisers "can't even use the word condom in [their] ad," HRW quoted DKT International Vice President for Marketing Emman Alfonso.
Not even the word “pills” is allowed by government-run Ad Standards Council (ASC), said
Carl Raton, DKT’s corporate communication manager, in an interview with ABS-CBN News.
Neither do they get automatic approval, “even if our messages are channeled on family planning,” she said.
The ASC, Alfonso said, also favors condom advertisements that depict male and female couples, making it difficult to market the device to males who have sex with other males.
According to HRW, it is vital to market condoms not only to heterosexual couples, but to men who have sex with men as well, as the "epicenter" of the spread of HIV among Filipinos has shifted from female sex workers and overseas workers (OFWs) to males having sex with males (MSM).
"Grabe ang pag-increase ng HIV infection, prevalence, nitong nakaraang 10 taon. Ang mga naiinfect na ito, pabata rin nang pabata. Mga 15 years old, hanggang 30," said Carlos Conde, HRW’s researcher for the Philippines.
He attributed the change to the country’s "hostile" environment for policies and interventions proven to help prevent the illness, such as sex education and contraceptive distribution.
The Philippines was also ranked third, after Afghanistan and Pakistan, in a 2016 Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) report on prevention gaps, in terms of percentage growth in the new HIV infections in the Asia-Pacific region from 2010 to 2015.
However, according to Digna Santos, ASC Executive Director, it is important to frame the public service message in a "different" way because "condoms are a sensitive product".
"Not just about the product, but empathy for people and the problem. [So in an ad] if there is only one man, it's okay. If there are two men, that's problematic if the situation is in a bedroom, or if the [men] are 'lovey-dovey,'" HRW quoted Santos in its study.
The ASC goes through all broadcast materials aired on television and radio, jingles, cinema ads, outdoor ads such as billboards, print ads, merchandising ads, and internet and mobile ads.
"Generally, print ads, merchandising and digital materials are not pre-screened," ASC said in its website, "except if they contain…sexy tones, skin exposure, [and] potentially controversial/sensitive execution," among others.
For DKT’s Raton, however, the Church and religion still play a big role in setting ad standards.
"In our materials, regardless if it is for the purpose of planning a family or educating them about how to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS, we are always perceived as promoters of promiscuity," she said.
Policies that limit education and contraceptive use can be harmful in the long run, said Conde, as while there are already widely available antiretroviral drugs to suppress the HIV virus and prevent its spread, it is better to prevent rather than cure.
"[Ang pag-promote ng condom] ay pagpromote ng aksyon, di lang sa mga lalaking nakikipagtalik sa lalaki, kundi sa buong lipunan. Hindi lang mga MSM ang natatamaan ng HIV. Andyan ang mga babae, mga anak na nakuha sa nanay. Andyan ang mga askidenteng nasalinan ng dugo na may HIV," Conde said.
(The promotion of condoms is the promotion of action, not only for men having sex with men, but for the whole society. They are not the only ones affected by HIV—so are women, children, those who accidentally got the disease due to infected blood.)
From January 1984 to October 2016, a total of 38,114 new HIV cases were reported to the HIV/AIDS & ART Registry of the Philippines (HARP); 1,912 of these cases resulted in deaths in the same period.
According to the Department of Health (DOH), from July to October 2016, there were 3,112 new individuals who were diagnosed to be infected with HIV. Of this number, 96 percent were male, with most ranging from 25 to 34 years of age. However, 28 percent of the new cases were youth aged 15 to 24.