By Joseph Pedrajas
The Philippines has been ranked as the country with the fastest growing number of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) cases in the world, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) bared Monday.
“We are the country with the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the world, not only in the Asia and the Pacific. In 2018 report, we’re now number 1 in the whole world,” Dr. Louie Ocampo, UNAIDS Philippines country director, said in a talk held at the Manila Doctors Hospital in Manila.
The UN organization said it recorded about 13,384 new HIV infections by the end of 2018. The number, according to UNAIDS, is 203 percent higher than infections recorded in 2010, with only about 4,419.
“[We are the] fastest growing in terms of growth rate comparing 2010 and 2018. But in terms of absolute number, we are still very low, [when compared to] African countries,” he added.
The UNAIDS estimated that there are now about 77,000 people living with HIV (PLHIV) in the Philippines. However, only about 62,029 of them have been diagnosed and reported.
“We’re lagging behind in terms of diagnosing [PLHIV], so we’re still missing around 15,000 people who are not [yet] detected or who are not [yet] diagnosed,” he said.
According to a DOH report, the UNAIDS said that the National Capital Region (NCR) recorded the highest number of HIV cases – about 39 percent of the total PLHIV population.
NCR is followed by Region 4-A, with 15 percent; and Region 7, with 9 percent.
A DOH report in 2019 also added that there were about 1,200 cases of AIDS-related deaths.
The percentage of HIV spread caused by male-to-male sex in 1984 to 2009 increased in 2010 to 2017, according to UNAIDS. From only 40 percent in the first wave of epidemic, 80 percent of PLHIV population was spread due to male-to-male sex in the second wave.
The cause of HIV spread is followed by male-to-female sex, and then sharing of infected needles, the organization added.
Among the PLHIV, the organization bared that, 80 percent of them are from younger age groups. More than 19,000 people aged 15 to 24 tested positive for HIV, while there were more than 34,500 aged 25 to 34 who tested positive.
“If you combine the 15 to 24 and the 25 to 34 age groups, that would comprise 80 percent PLHIV, meaning our epidemic demographics is getting younger and younger,” Ocampo said.
Ocampo bared that such “is the reason the organization pushed for the amendment that would repeal the old AIDS law.”
“One major revision in the new AIDS law is the lowering of age consent of HIV testing,” he said.
But why HIV case is high among the youth?
Ocampo said that although condom is affordable yet “very effective in preventing HIV transmission,” about 50 percent of the youth aged 15 to 24 years old, particularly men who had sexual intercourse with same men, disclosed that they do not use condom.
Some of the reasons these people do not usually use “condom were machismo, condom pricing, and because they did not think that they are at risk,” said Dr. Regina Berba, HIV and AIDS Core Team of the Medical City.
Another reason, the UNAIDS added, is the consent for, and access to reproductive health services, including condom, starts at age 18.
Other factors that affect the HIV epidemic among the youth are: Low level of knowledge on how HIV is transmitted and prevented; existing laws are prohibitive; low participation or engagement of the youth sector in policy-making; and lack of safe spaces, particularly adolescent health facilities.
The organization is targeting to lower the number of the HIV cases in the Philippines by 2020.
The UNAIDS said that it could be halted when “intensified comprehensive prevention, increase HIV testing and coverage, early initiation of treatment and adherence to treatment” would be applied.
Meanwhile, Berba added that “our recommendations to help reverse the epidemic are 1. strengthen education of all youth; 2. impactful information to populations at risk; 3. make HIV tests available; and 4. good HIV care.”
The UNAIDS stressed the importance of applying improved HIV interventions as the Philippines might reach 201,000 HIV infection cases in just eight years if the country continues to rely on current interventions.