Monday, July 23, 2007

Breaking the silence

(Again, this post is ante-dated).

Where were you in 1981? That was the first time the symptoms of what would later be considered diagnostic of AIDS were discovered in the cities of New York and Los Angeles in the United States. I had just entered college then but I still vividly remember how the world reacted with revulsion and panic as the first pictures of people with a rare type of pneumonia (pneumocystis carinii pneumonia) and skin tumors called Kaposis’ sarcoma were shown on media.
The first media projection of HIV/AIDS was so gruesome it struck terror in the hearts of people. It led to stigmatization, particularly of those living with HIV/AIDS and the people who were vulnerable to it. HIV/AIDS became a dreaded disease. It still is.
It took three more years to isolate the virus that eventually got labeled as human immunodeficiency virus or HIV, and then another two more years before an antibody test was developed to detect it.
All throughout the last 35 years, a number of breakthroughs have been achieved insofar as developing drugs that would help keep the virus in check among people living with HIV/AIDS.
This included a treatment that packed three cocktail drugs in one pill (a major improvement from the time a person living with HIV/AIDS had to take 30-35 pills a day, quite a major struggle for anyone). Today, treatment that prolongs the onset of AIDS is readily available. People living with HIV/AIDS can live a long time without showing symptoms that they are living with the virus.
However, the long search for a cure or even a vaccine still seems a distant possibility. It may never happen. The best response to HIV/AIDS is still prevention.
Worse, the many social, cultural, even political and economic problems that impede a more effective response toward containing the spread of HIV/AIDS remain.
By any indication, 35 years is a long, long time. Many millions—some say a whole generation of people—have been lost to the global pandemic. The impact of the pandemic has been so widespread. In many parts of the world, including even among our neighboring countries, the current infection rates still number in the millions. Contrary to public perception, the infection rates haven’t showed signs of declining. Experts, in fact, say that the rate of new infections has started to climb again.
What has become more alarming is that the pattern of infection has now become more complicated. In the past, the spread of the virus was believed to be concentrated among what used to be called vulnerable groups—mainly those involved in sex work, injecting drug users, and men who have sex with other men. This is not true anymore. HIV/AIDS now affects everyone. For example, the infection rates among housewives of migrant workers have been noted to be increasing. And in what has become a major cause for alarm, infection rates in the country have been noted in certain occupational groups.
The HIV/AIDS situation in the Philippines has become more alarming today than it was say, 20 years ago when HIV/AIDS was still a topic worthy of screaming newspaper headlines that caused widespread panic. Very few remember Sarah Jane Salazar, Dolzura Cortez, and the other people living with HIV/AIDS who became the subject of so much public attention and even media exploitation. HIV/AIDS is hardly talked about anymore. Consequently, the resources for prevention and education programs have dwindled and many non-government organizations that implement HIV/AIDS prevention and education programs have started to close shop.
Many among us who are involved in HIV/AIDS prevention are undecided whether the prevalent apathy toward the issue is a blessing or a curse. On one hand, the resulting lack of sensationalized media coverage and public attention has somehow lessened the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS. At least we do not have to put up with false and often-irresponsible news reports, irrational calls for mandatory HIV testing, or even witch hunts and demand for isolation of those living with HIV/AIDS.
On the other hand, the almost total silence about HIV/AIDS is just as disturbing because it has created this false sense of security that the worst is over and that we have somehow stemmed the pandemic, which are farthest from the truth.
I hate to be alarmist about it, but the disturbing reality is that the country’s rate of infection has increased three-fold in recent years. The number of new infections in 2006 was the highest ever recorded in the whole history of surveillance efforts in the country.
HIV/AIDS is very much a major cause of concern for us Filipinos, maybe more so today than ever before.
This is why the prevailing culture of silence in the Philippines as far as HIV/AIDS is concerned, or about sexual behavior and injecting drug use for that matter, is very disturbing. By not talking about it, we seemed to have lapsed into this comfort zone that our situation is not as dire as that of other countries.
The vectors for infection in our country have become more pronounced. We continue to have millions of migrant workers who work abroad and are vulnerable to contracting the virus elsewhere. More than 30 percent of new infections involve overseas workers. We are seeing an increase in the number of injecting drug users right here in our country. Condom use and sex education are still unpopular, no thanks to the Church who continues to be vociferously against these. And like I said, there is hardly any money for prevention and education programs.
To illustrate, whenever I talk about my involvement in HIV/AIDS work, the most common reaction is that people ask if we still have people living with HIV/AIDS in our country. Many think that we don’t have cases of HIV infection anymore.
A friend told me that, at least, people are not reacting with horror and repulsion anymore. But then again, if we really come to think about it, apathy and indifference are probably just as insidious, probably more so in this case, as it leads people into thinking that it does not concern them; that HIV/AIDS is something that only happens to or concerns “others,” usually people who are less smarter or worse, in possession of lesser morals. As we all know, smarts and morals have nothing to do with it. It is about behavior. Anyone who practices unsafe sexual or injecting drug use behavior is vulnerable.
When we started the groundwork for “HIV/AIDS: Break the Silence,” a benefit concert for HIV/AIDS which happens tomorrow at 6 p.m. at the Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, we had high hopes that some support for the event would be forthcoming.
Thinking Cap, the events company that is helping us put up the concert, has told us that this is the very first time it has had major difficulties getting sponsors for an event. They were initially excited and thought that something as serious as HIV/AIDS would easily thaw the hearts of corporate donors or philanthropic individuals. Our worse fears may have just been validated: Very, very few are concerned about the HIV/AIDS situation in the country. Talking about HIV/AIDS today is like talking about life in Pluto.
It’s time to break the silence. Please join us and lend support to the cause of HIV/AIDS prevention in the country.

No comments: