Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Garin's blanket assurance

My May 12, 2015 column.


“DOH ang bahala sa inyo” (DOH will take responsibility for you), says Health Secretary Janette Garin in the television advertisements that aim to generate public awareness about the importance of knowing one’s HIV status and consequently, submitting to HIV testing.  The DOH is organizing free HIV testing in various centers nationwide next week in an effort to encourage people to get tested for HIV.  The DOH purportedly wants to have a more accurate picture of the real state of HIV infections in the country – supposedly so they can manage better.
There’s a part of me that is somehow heartened by the fact that a health secretary has once again broke the surface to talk about the HIV/AIDS situation in the country.  Media have been raising the alarm button for the longest time now and many organizations have been frantically trying to get government to be a little more proactive and decisive in addressing the runaway cases of HIV infections in the country, to no avail.  The former health secretary played deaf, blind, and mute to the emerging crisis.  It’s actually been quite some time since a top-ranking government official deigned to display empathy and concern for people living with HIV/AIDS and individuals affected by the crisis.  So yes, we’re happy Garin has taken out TV ads to appeal to people not to be scared or ashamed to submit themselves to HIV testing, although more proactive and comprehensive responses to stop the prevalence are required.
I must express serious concerns about Garin’s blanket assurance that government would take responsibility - although I truly, honestly, and genuinely wish government would and could. 
But let’s get real, not since Juan Flavier was Secretary of Health have we seen real and sincere efforts to address the HIV/AIDS problem in the country. Sure, it can certainly be argued that things were completely different back then – the infection rates were really slow.  The tragic truth however is that government has not been in control of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the country and has not shown deliberate efforts to want to assume responsibility – at least not until now, it seems.  In the last five years, the health department has been content with issuing alarmist press releases every month showing just how infection rates have increasingly gone from bad to worse.  Something could have already been done, but no cigar.  So we went from being a best practice in HIV prevention, to being one of only a handful of countries where HIV infections continue to rise.
And now comes the politician health secretary who says government will now take responsibility.  First, I hope Garin really means it and that she has the political will to see her resolve through and that she has the full support and blessings of her boss, who has so far, been impervious to the HIV/AIDS situation in the country.  Second, I really hope the Department of Health has found a way to marshal the necessary resources needed to put in place a decent manifestation of Garin’s assurance that government “will take responsibility.”  Third, I truly and sincerely hope Garin is able to get everyone – the whole bureaucracy within her own department, local governments, community groups, and non-government organizations to rally behind her.  HIV/AIDS is a complex social issue that requires multi-sectoral and collaborative approaches.
The cost of managing high incidence of HIV/AIDS infections can be really high.  And for a developing country such as the Philippines where incidence of tuberculosis, measles, dengue, and a host of other common diseases has remained high, resources spent on managing HIV/AIDS cases can be prohibitive.  Right now, medications designed to prolong the progression of HIV to AIDS have continued to be provided free of charge by government.  We all know this is not sustainable.  
The country cannot afford to foot the bill on medication for hundreds of thousands, or millions, of HIV/AIDS cases.   The official count have remained in the tens of thousands so far, but unless government really gets its act together, the infection rates will soon breach the hundred thousand mark.
It cannot be overemphasized – it is imperative that adequate focus be given to education and prevention programs; not just care.  The best way to stem the rising incidence of infections is to put in place an aggressive, comprehensive, and ably supported education and prevention programs.  And we need to do these now.  We need to move beyond shocking people with headlines.

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