Sunday, May 07, 2006

Alarming numbers

Being aware of the level of stigmatization people living with HIV/AIDS are subjected to, I wasn't sure I should write about it. But the data was published in the papers today so I guess there is no point in keeping the data among ourselves in the HIV/AIDS prevention community. I am talking about the dramatic rise in reported incidence of HIV infection from an average of around 10 a month, to an all-time high of 30 incidences last month (statistical projections say that there are 100 other unreported cases for every single reported case of infection). This is alarming.

There are those who think that the dramatic rise in reported infections was triggered by the government's announcement that it would offer free retroviral drugs (the cocktail drugs that slow down the progress of the disease). But I personally doubt this because the general perception about HIV/AIDS is still that it is a "dreaded, fatal, incurable" disease. I doubt very much if the possibility of getting access to free drugs is enough motivation for people to come forward to take the HIV test.

In the last few years, HIV/AIDS in the Philippines has been described by experts as "hidden and growing" (the earliest description was "low and slow"). I think this description will need to be reconsidered if the trend continues. The spread of HIV/AIDS in the country is growing...and seemingly at an algebraic pace.

For quite some time, the Philippines was actually considered a "model case" in HIV/AIDS Prevention. Not only was the country among the first to come up with a more integrated response to HIV/AIDS, our response was noteworthy because we focused on "prevention" rather than "control" a lesson that other countries had to learn the painful way. I think that our relative success in the early years can be attributed to several factors: 1) the country's response was quick; 2) the national HIV/AIDS program was lucky to have had strategic thinkers at its helm (think Juan Flavier, Manolet Dayrit, etc); 3) the inherent brilliance of many Filipino NGO workers. It also helped of course that media attention was present, although media tended to (and still does, by the way) sensationalize its treatment of the issue.

But we seemed to have hit an invisible wall and went downhill in the last few years in terms of HIV/AIDS prevention. Public information campaigns have slackened and condom use has been reported to be on a decline. Moreover, injecting drug use, which is one of the major vectors for the spread of HIV/AIDS in other Asian countries, is increasing. It is a given, of course, that people continue to have sex. I do not have statistics to back me up, but based on my discussions with young people, most adolescents become sexually active at a younger age today. Furthermore, the "repertoire" of sexual behaviors seemed to have become more and more risky in terms of HIV/AIDS infection.

The picture is alarming but not a cause for panic. The keys to prevention remain the same:

1. If you are an injecting drug user, do not share needles with anyone.

2. If you need blood transfusion, get blood only from reliable sources. Better still, make it a habit to donate blood regularly and convince your friends to do the same so that the practice of selling blood is stopped once and for all.

3. Unless you are in a monogamous relationship and both of you have been tested negative for HIV or have not indulged in risky sexual behaviors in the past, practice safer sex with all your sexual partners. This means using condoms if you indulge in penetrative sex.

Also, please remember that unlike the SARS virus, HIV/AIDS is not airborne. You do not get HIV from shaking hands, sharing toilet seats, being in the same room with someone who is living with HIV, not even from kissing.

There is no need to fear someone living with HIV/AIDS.

1 comment:

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