Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Poisoned blood

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.


I don’t want to cause unnecessary panic by focusing on this piece of news that some dailies picked up over the weekend, but it’s a piece of news that is quite alarming for many reasons.

The Department of Health has revealed over the weekend that 32 out of 118 donated blood packs—that’s 27 percent of blood donations made to the national blood donation program last month—tested positive for HIV. The results were confirmed by the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, which acts as the country’s main research and laboratory center for HIV/AIDS.

Let me be very clear about this though: I do not think that we should start worrying about possible HIV infections from blood transfusions sourced from the blood donation program of the DOH. This should not be the cause of alarm.

If we really come to think about it, that piece of news validates something that should assuage our fears: The government is doing a good job in terms of screening the blood supply in the country. Let’s not start panicking over the safety of blood sourced from the blood donation program.

I can understand why many people would be worried. Blood transfusion was one of the first routes of HIV transmission in the past, particularly during the early stages of the pandemic when the HIV test was relatively inaccessible. But science has progressed considerably since then and screening of blood for HIV and for other diseases has become mandatory in most countries including the Philippines. Theoretically —and there is no reason to suspect otherwise—the blood supply in the country remains safe.

The fact that 27 percent of blood donations tested positive for HIV, however, is worrisome. It is unlikely that all the 32 donated blood packs last month came from the same source. While I would caution against drawing direct correlations and making generalizations based purely on the specific data on hand, the increasing incidence of blood donations that tested for HIV is indicative of the growing number of HIV infections in this country. Not that we need further validation of the increasing number of HIV infections in this country, anyway. All the experts on HIV/AIDS have been saying the same thing in the last 12 months—we are facing a crisis and we need to wake up and do something about it. Unfortunately, our leaders do not seem to be listening.

I don’t want to be alarmist about it, but when a sizable percentage of blood donated to the national blood program start testing positive for HIV, then we are truly in deep trouble. It can only mean one thing—the infections are spreading fast and across demographics.

I am worried though that people who are a position to do something would react in ways that would exacerbate the problem. The last thing that we need today is to go into a wild chase to find people living with HIV. There is a great probability that people who donate blood to the national blood program are not even aware that they are living with HIV. I know what many are thinking – why not prescribe mandatory testing so that we can identify those who need to be “watched.” Unfortunately, mandatory testing is not a wise solution because it takes the virus six months, on average, to be detected by the test. The last thing that we need is to start the cycle of blaming all over again. We shouldn’t be blaming certain sectors of society for the fact that the percentage of HIV-infected blood is increasing—obviously it’s mirroring the trend of HIV infections in the general population.

Keeping the blood supply safe is of paramount importance and the best way to ensure that this remains so is by educating people about risky behaviors and by encouraging people to assess their own vulnerabilities to HIV. And of course, the government should continue to be vigilant in terms of screening blood donations for HIV and other viruses.

But the more effective long-term solution is really to put in place more aggressive efforts in HIV/AIDS prevention. The really sad truth is that HIV/AIDS prevention programs in this country are on a virtual standstill because resources for such programs are hopelessly tied up in bureaucratic wrangling. Most non-government organizations working on HIV/AIDS prevention have folded up because of non-availability of resources for their programs. It’s really tragic that the rise in the incidences of HIV/AIDS infections has not been matched with commensurate level of response by government.

***

President Aquino’s second State-of-the-Nation Address delivered the other Monday was pulled together by the wang-wang (siren) metaphor, which he introduced during his inaugural speech last year by pompously intoning: “Walang wang-wang (No more sirens)!”

Aquino has staked his presidency on a platform of moral reform. Before wang-wang, there was daang matuwid (straight path), which has since then been dropped unceremoniously. Many people presume it’s because people have been openly complaining about how the straight and narrow path has so far lacked a specific—not to mention inspiring and desired—destination.

And so we’ve been left with the wang-wang metaphor. It’s not a bad one, actually. In fact, it is one metaphor that has mass appeal. It creates a vivid mental picture in one’s mind. Being annoyed at individuals who use sirens to flaunt their authority on the road, wantonly violate traffic rules, and show utter lack of concern for others is something many motorists could relate to. Thus, the use of wang-wang to represent abuse of authority was an inspired idea.

But I am not sure “isip wangwang (siren mentality)” will catch on as the new buzzword the way “utak talangka (crab mentality)” has become deeply ingrained in our culture. The wang-wang is not exactly a universal symbol. In rural Philippines, the lack of wang-wang is in fact a real problem —whether they are attached to ambulances, police vehicles, or fire trucks. There are places in this country where people haven’t seen a vehicle with a siren. Knocking sirens unilaterally may be counterproductive in the long run although in general, I think that this country could use fewer sirens.

I must admit, though, that I’ve always felt ambivalent towards the choice of the wang-wang metaphor because of a more basic reason. Sure, we have partially done away with wangwangs on our thoroughfares, but that doesn’t mean people in power don’t flaunt their authority on the road anymore. “Wala ngang wangwang, may hawi naman.” We may have done away with sirens but police escorts continue to sweep vehicles on the road so that some government factotum could pass through traffic unhampered by ordinary mortals.

Let’s make no bones about this— certain government officials still act like they own our roads; their police escorts certainly make it known to everyone. It can be argued that at least they do it discreetly but nobody can certainly claim that abuse of power is no longer practiced in our country.

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