More often than not, people associate the words "human immunodeficiency virus" (HIV) or "acquired immunodeficiency syndrome" (AIDS) with a person having a death sentence upon them.
But for Eros de Vera and Terrie Casuncad, these words meant the birth of their call to action in ending the stigma that hounds it.
De Vera, a Person Living with HIV (PLHIV), found out that they're positive for the virus way back in 2009 when they were just 26 years old and had themselves tested for the third time.
"I was not surprised because I knew I was a very high-risk person [in] contracting the virus... It was like the first two tests were preparing me for that fateful day that I was going to be diagnosed," De Vera said in an interview with ABS-CBN News.
Despite the heavy news they just received, De Vera said it was no time for them to feel sorry for themselves and just be accountable for their actions.
"Yes, malungkot kasi wala pang cure ang HIV but we have to be accountable for our actions... I was sort of part of the problem, too, that's why I was able to contract the virus but I don't need to dwell on that idea kasi if I just wanted to live my life, gagawin ko ang gusto ko para mabuhay," they added.
While De Vera thought that it was necessary to test themselves right from the start for the sake of holding themselves accountable, Casuncad, another PLHIV, had second thoughts in getting tested out of fear of knowing the result.
"Ako kasi 'yung isa sa mga may self-stigma noon. Kumbaga sa sarili ko, takot ako malaman kung may HIV ako o wala," he said in a separate interview with ABS-CBN News.
Eventually, he opted to get himself tested after experiencing symptoms of HIV and for his own peace of mind.
"I was diagnosed in 2017 when I was around 22 or 23. Kumbaga for my own sanity, nagpatest na ako pero handa na ako sa magiging result."
"Nung nakita kong positive yung result, nakangiti ako... kasi natapos na yung paranoid time [ko]. At least, alam ko na and 'di na ako mag-iisip na meron ba akong HIV o wala everyday. 'Yun kasi 'yung impyerno talaga sa akin," he added.
And while both of them told their immediate family as soon as they had to, they still struggled with the idea of coming out to their loved ones as a PLHIV.
"[Noon, ayaw] ko talagang sabihin sa parents ko kasi imagine being a lucky person--in a Filipino setting, na your parents accepted you as a gay person--especially from a Filipino father, very rare 'yun e. What more pa kung sasabihin kong may HIV ako," said Casuncad.
Both De Vera and Casuncad also noted that at some point, they were forced to break the news to some people as they were caught off-guard in certain situations.
De Vera said they had to disclose their status to a few people in their workplace to explain why they had to take a 2-week sick leave. According to them, PLHIVs back then had to be confined in a hospital for two weeks for them to be monitored during their treatment.
Meanwhile, Casuncad was left with no choice but to tell his parents because of his worsening health condition.
"I was already at AIDS stage na noong na-diagnose ako... so sobrang bagsak katawan ko to the point na I even had tuberculosis," said Casuncad.
When his parents noticed his declining health status, they brought him to a hospital where he disclosed to the doctor his condition.
He said he informed the doctor that "there's no need for you to ask me questions kasi I've been diagnosed with HIV and that's the reason talaga na bagsak katawan ko."
That's when the doctor advised him to disclose his status to his parents as the hospital could not assist them with his medical condition since it was not yet equipped to be an HIV treatment hub.
ONE OF THE FEW LUCKY ONES
As it is with a lot of PLHIVs, both De Vera and Casuncad somehow feared what their loved ones' reaction would be. Both of them were terrified at how their parents would look at the situation.
Fortunately, De Vera and Casuncad were among the "rare" instances of PLHIVs who did not receive discriminatory remarks from their own family.
"I initially told my dad na 'Pa, mayroon akong sakit na hindi gumagaling' tapos [eventually], sinabi ko sa kaniya na it's HIV," said De Vera.
"Hindi ko naramdaman yung shock sa kaniya right away kasi... he was actually a part of a program sa province na nagdi-disseminate ng HIV awareness... I didn't realize that [so he approached the situation with an educated or informed mindset]," they added.
In Casuncad's case, he was left at the mercy of his parents' point of view of the whole picture as he was forced to disclose his status during a time when his health was getting worse.
"[Noong sinabi ko sa father ko], doon ko inaabangan 'yung mga susunod niyang sasabihin. Kung itatakwil niya ba ako, will he push me away, abandon na ba," he said.
"Napaluha ako sa sinabi niyang 'so ano ang next plan?' kasi of all the things na kailangan kong marinig, 'yung suporta pa ng isang tatay na gusto lang kung anong makabubuti sa akin ang sinabi niya."
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE STIGMA
De Vera said that they were fortunate enough to be colleagues and friends with people who never treated them differently after coming out as a PLHIV.
Although, they doubt that they never experienced even a slight form of discrimination from anyone as the stigma is still mostly prevalent in this day and age.
"Siguro because of my strong personality, people could not do it in front of me or could not discriminate me to my face. Siguro may bulong-bulungan sila diyan sa likod pero they can't do it in front of me," said De Vera.
And while Casuncad also did not experience any kind of discrimination from his friends or family, he still came across random people who subjected him to various prejudice.
He noted that he experienced discrimination from companies he tried applying jobs at, which resulted in him being "really demotivated" to work for two years.
Casuncad also mentioned that while the country has come a long way in opening up discussions on previously considered taboo topics like HIV or AIDS, the stigma is still deeply rooted within the country.
He added that the stigma is prevalent even within the LGBTQIA+ community as he received a lot of discriminatory remarks when he disclosed his HIV status in a dating app.
"Ang lala ng iba kasi sinasabi nila 'so bakit ka pa andito? Nagkakalat ka pa ng virus' and I would just respond with 'alam mo na ba HIV status mo? Sure ka na ba diyan? Kasi ako sure akong hindi ako makakapagpasa pero ikaw safe ka ba,'" said Casuncad.
Both De Vera and Casuncad also said that even though people who experienced little to no discrimination like them exist, they still acknowledge that majority of PLHIVs face day-to-day persecution because of the stigma.
"Most of the people na nadidisclose ang status nila, everything goes down south... na imbes na maging mabuti na umamin sila as a PLHIV, either itinakwil sila ng pamilya, tinanggalan ng trabaho, or iniwan ng mga kaibigan... to a point na naging mag-isa na lang sila sa laban nila imbes na nagkaroon sila ng suporta," said De Vera.
Casuncad said he feels lucky enough to have not experienced any type of abuse from his family following his disclosure of his HIV status as he said he knew people who experienced extreme cases at the hands of their own family.
"One of my friends was diagnosed sa Dubai and after that he was deported back here," he added.
These good and bad experiences eventually led them to come out in the public as a PLHIV and advocate for those in the community and for HIV awareness itself.
"[I came out in public because] gusto kong bigyan ng bagong mukha 'yung HIV in a sense na let's show a different side of HIV... na hindi lahat ng mga taong nagco-come out ay inaabandona," said De Vera.
On the other hand, Casuncad publicly came out as a PLHIV with a mission to normalize having conversations about the virus.
"I wanted to have this change na its normal to say your HIV status to anyone on open air kasi wala naman talaga dapat issue doon. Kumbaga parang COVID lang, 'pag sinabi nating 'nagkaroon ako ng covid before,' [ang reaction natin] 'so what?' Sana ganon din 'yung impact sa HIV like 'I have HIV' [pero ang reaction ay] 'so what' in a sense na there's nothing wrong with that," said Casuncad.
Casuncad and de Vera aim to set themselves as an example to others by showing that having HIV is not parallel to having a death sentence, with Eros being a PLHIV for 13 years and Terrie for four years.
Both Eros and Terrie are affiliated with HIV & AIDS Support House Inc. (HASH) which is a registered non-profit organization in the Philippines that organize programs regarding HIV prevention, screening, and treatment assistance.
Philippines has recorded a total of 107,177 HIV-positive individuals ever since the country started tracking cases in January 1984, according to the latest data of the Department of Health Epidemiology Bureau for October 2022.
The DOH's report also showed that the National Capital Region had the most number of newly reported cases followed by Region 4A and Region 3.