Thursday, December 17, 2009

"This is it!"

This was my column yesterday.

No, the title of this column does not refer to that Michael Jackson movie which was shown recently. It is the title of a presentation on HIV/AIDS made by the National Epidemiology Center of the Health Department last week. The data presented on HIV/AIDS prevalence in the country was not only sobering; it was depressing. No wonder the friend who forwarded the Powerpoint presentation to me aptly wrote as the subject of his e-mail “Read it and weep.”

Of course those among us who have been actively involved in HIV/AIDS prevention and caring for People Living With HIV/AIDS for more than two decades now have known about the grim statistics for sometime already. I have personally been raising the alarm in this space and in various fora since last year. But seeing the stark data in graphs and hearing the confirmation from the NEC made the data more foreboding.

But why “this is it?” I know the statement makes it appear as if we’ve stumbled on something exciting rather than ominous.

It’s really equivalent to pressing the proverbial alarm button. HIV/AIDS prevention advocates have been trying to convince everyone about the need to get serious about HIV/AIDS prevention for quite sometime now but unfortunately, the seemingly low prevalence of infection rates in the country lulled everyone into complacency. The general attitude was that HIV/AIDS was not a serious concern in the Philippines—the mantra of the 1990s was that HIV/AIDS infection in the country was “low and slow.” After all, our infection rates were at the low thousands while that of Thailand, Cambodia, and other countries were in the millions. Some people even clung to the myth that Filipinos had some built-in protection against HIV/AIDS infection.

For almost three decades, HIV/AIDS prevention advocates sounded like the boy who cried wolf. We tried to put a new spin to the HIV/AIDS situation in the country by describing it as “hidden and rising” but to no avail.

Not this time around. “This is it!” indeed.

The doubling rate of HIV/AIDS infection rates in the country is now officially pegged at two years. What this means is that the number of people who have been infected in the last two years has been twice the number of people infected in 2007. The statistics is alarming because the doubling rate of HIV/AIDS infection prior to 2007 was 10 years. It took the country ten years—from 1996 to 2006—to double the rate of infections.

Prior to the 10-year lull, the doubling rate of infections was every four years (1986 to 1990, 1991 to 1995). What this data says is that the country actually had relative success in HIV/AIDS prevention in the eighties and nineties. I was already actively involved in HIV/AIDS prevention and education at that time and I can categorically say that the resources made available by both government and global funding agencies to the cause of HIV/AIDS prevention in the country were adequate. Non-government organizations flourished and prevention programs were running at full speed. Thus, infection rates slowed down during the period 1996 to 2006 and we were the envy of many countries, many of which looked to the Philippines for inspiration and lessons.

Unfortunately, something went terribly wrong since the early 2000s. Funding for HIV/AIDS programs went dry as HIV/AIDS prevention ceased to be a priority. It seemed everyone became complacent and we all let our guard down. Many NGOs folded up. The few that remained gasped for breath. Most NGOs who focus on HIV/AIDS prevention are subsisting on meager funds.

Without funding support, technical expertise had become scarce as most HIV/AIDS educators and advocates were left with no choice but to give up HIV/AIDS work and opt for more lucrative careers. Counselors became call center agents. Medical experts became nurses abroad. Many NGOs —including the one of which I am President of the Board of Trustees —were hauled to court on account of the country’s rather stringent labor laws.

I’ve said this before and I am going to say it again: We are going to pay dearly for the collective mistake of the last 10 years. And the NEC data released recently is a harbinger of a grim scenario looming before us. This is it! We are now seeing data that shows alarming infection rates.

In 2000, the country had one reported new case of HIV infection every three days. This went up to one new case every day in 2007. This year, we had three new reported cases of HIV infection every day. And we are just talking about reported infections. We are not taking into account undocumented cases, which many experts estimate to be at least a hundred for every reported case. And it is a conservative estimate.

A great majority of infected cases are aged between 20 to 34 years old—people who are at the prime of their lives! This means college students and those who are in the workforce. The primary mode of transmission in the country is unsafe sexual contact—and the data shows algebraic increase in infections among bisexuals and men who have sex with other men. Here’s something just as distressing: In the past, most of the infections came from highly urbanized locations such as Metro Manila; today, the infections are spread across the archipelago.

The NEC data pointed to rising incidence of risky sexual behavior and low prevention programs as the twin factors that account for the alarming rate of HIV infection. Obviously, the solution is to reverse the correlation —we should be working towards decreasing risky sexual behavior through more and better prevention programs. The conclusion is hardly rocket science—it is still education and information that will empower people to protect them selves from HIV/AIDS infection.

The NEC has sounded the alarm. Let’s hope everyone is taking notice —in particular, those who have the means to do something to prevent HIV/AIDS infection rates from further skyrocketing beyond our control.


Contents under pressue said...

If I may ask Bong, how exactly will the RH Bill figure into AIDs prevention?

Just thinking that this is another angle that can be used to add more weight to the legitimacy of this bill.

Bong C. Austero said...

Reproductive health education works complementary with HIV/AIDS prevention. This is because one of the most common modes of HIV transmission is through sexual contact. In fact most HIV/AIDS programs piggyback on RH programs and vice versa. If people are more aware of their reproductive rights then they are more empowered to protect themselves from sexual crimes, STDs, etc. Unfortunately, the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS will most likely shoot down the RH Bill. The last thing that we need is for people to say that we are pushing the RH bill so that people can have sex without worrying about HIV/AIDS; which should not be an issue, actually, but you know how the minds of moralists work.