For decades, the Philippines has managed to dodge the HIV epidemic, but now the human immunodeficiency virus is spreading fast in the country, particularly among males having sex with males. It’s got the highest rate of new infections in the Asia-Pacific region.
CGTN’s barnaby Lo reports.
The last three months have been life-changing for Marvin Natural. Visiting this clinic has become routine for the 34-year old Filipino, who identifies as gay. No, he isn’t sick. In fact, he willingly travels and spends hours here each time getting tested and consulting with doctors to prevent himself from getting sick. “The way I see it, it’s just like going to the doctor to have yourself tested or to have yourself checked up on a regular basis. And basically sexual health is part of your overall health. And whatever I can do to protect myself and make sure that I’m healthy, I will do,” Natural said.
Marvin is one of only 200 participants in the initial rollout of PrEP or pre-exposure prophylaxis in the Philippines. The pill, which is being provided for free through the nonprofit LoveYourself, prevents the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV from entering cells, effectively keeping an HIV-negative person HIV-free. The hope is that it would help slow down the spread of HIV in the country, especially among men having sex with men.
The Philippines is now the country with the fastest-growing HIV epidemic in the Asia-Pacific region. That’s according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS or UNAIDS. The number of new infections has more than doubled from around 4,300 in 2010 to around 10,500 in 2016. And currently, around 30 are diagnosed with HIV each day.
The introduction of PrEP is complemented by an aggressive information campaign by HIV and AIDS advocacy groups like The Red Whistle. Benedict Bernabe, co-founder of the organization says, the Philippines’ new wave of HIV infections can be attributed partly to an outdated government response. “Complacency I think is the word to describe it because when you’ve seen the epidemic stabilize for a few years, you think that you’ve solved the problem. And then it shifts, it takes you some time to adapt to the epidemic,” Bernabe said.
It did take time, but HIV awareness discussions like this are now very much supported by the health department. Government doctors who’ve been working to curb the further rise of HIV cases in the country say it’s time to treat the problem as a national emergency.