According to the November 2015 report of the Philippine Department of Health (DOH), there are now close to 40,000 people in the country who are considered HIV positive. More than three-fourths of these cases have been due to male homosexual contact, while a little bit more than 12,000 of the total are now on treatment.
The Philippines is now one of seven countries where HIV/AIDS cases are actually rising, going against the global trend of cases falling. This may be attributed to two things: first, an aggressive awareness campaign by the DOH in recent years for people to get tested, thereby making them aware of their status (which by the way is a good thing); second, continuing myths about the transmission of the virus itself (which would be tackled here).
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For some reason, there is a lingering undercurrent in Filipino culture against people who have any sort of sickness; people who are sick (or even thought of as “sick”) are seen as “sinful,” and victim blaming often ensues. “You have the flu? It’s your fault, you exposed yourself to people who have it.” “Got diagnosed with dengue? It’s your fault, you didn’t do prevention measures.” HIV/AIDS, of course, is the ultimate viral boogeyman that Filipinos use to blame those who have it, simply because its method of transmission is seen as exactly what religious moralists in the country see as “sinful.” Coupled with a poor implementation of government health programs, it seems that the HIV infection rates for Filipinos would not decrease anytime soon.
MYTH 1: ONLY PROSTITUTES AND GAY PEOPLE GET GET AIDS, AND THEY DESERVE TO DIE.
The Facts: Though as stated most HIV/AIDS cases in the Philippines are due to male homosexual contact, let’s not forget that there still are people in the country who get the virus from other means. In fact, Cebu currently has the highest infection rates in the country and this is due to hypodermic needle sharing (not sex). Additionally, HIV can be transmitted from mother to child through breastmilk or through contact with blood during birth. Filipinos who still think that HIV/AIDS is a “gay disease” should ask themselves: are infected children “sinful?” Are rape victims “sinful” as well, through no fault of their own?
Stigmatizing gay men and sex workers just because they have the highest rates of infection in the country contributes to ignorance, and does nothing to stem the epidemic.
MYTH 2: YOU CAN GET AIDS FROM (INSERT NOUN HERE).
The Facts: In the Philippines, ask a random person on the street where he/she thinks HIV comes from, and they’ll probably reply with one or more of the following things: gay sex, dirty public toilets, dirty air, kissing, drugs, human urine, shaking hands with HIV+ people, animal feces, baby parts – pretty much anything, anyone and anywhere that Filipinos may think as “dirty.”
Just so everybody knows:
- You CANNOT “get” AIDS. AIDS is the consequence of an untreated HIV infection.
- You CANNOT get HIV from touching, hugging or kissing an infected person. Saliva is an extremely poor transmitter of the virus.
- You CANNOT get HIV from using public toilets. Certain body fluids such as sweat, urine, feces, nasal mucus and tears are also poor transmitters of the virus. Blood, breastmilk and sexual fluids, however, can harbor HIV.
- You should NOT believe the urban legend about random needles stuck to public seats that have the virus in them.
MYTH 3: I FEEL HEALTHY, THEREFORE I DON’T HAVE AIDS.
The Facts: HIV infection is often asymptomatic, meaning that in most cases you might not even know if you have it or not. A relatively healthy person can therefore carry the virus for years before the real symptoms of AIDS appear. What’s dangerous here is that if a person doesn’t know if he or she has the virus, he or she might unknowingly transmit it to someone else through unprotected sex or breastfeeding. So if you think that you feel great and you’ve had a history of unprotected sex, you need to get tested. In the Philippines, HIV counseling and testing is free and confidential in various health centers around the country. It pays in the future to know what your status is, so you’d know what to do next.
Additionally, since HIV is asymptomatic as stated, you can never really know who has HIV or not just by looking at a person. People who accuse others of “having AIDS” just because they’re “gay” or they “look thin” or “have a lingering cough” is stupid, and only contributes to stigma and the spreading of false information. Besides, people who have HIV enjoy the privilege of keeping their status secret; Philippine laws protect any patient with any illness from disclosing whatever conditions they have for their individual safety and for the protection of their personal liberties.
MYTH 4: I HAVE HIV/AIDS, THERE IS NO CURE FOR IT, THEREFORE I WILL DIE EARLY.
The Facts: If you don’t get treated, then you will definitely die – just like any other viral infection that goes untreated such as tuberculosis (which, by the way, has a higher death rate in the Philippines than AIDS), dengue or certain flu strains. This all goes back to the testing process: the sooner that doctors find out that you’re infected, the sooner you can get treatments.
Although yes as of this writing there still is no cure for HIV, proper adherence to treatment procedures can “starve” the virus: most anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs that HIV+ people take these days are called “inhibitors,” meaning they stop the ability of the virus to multiply in the body (and eventually push their numbers down to undetectable levels).
Scientific breakthroughs have allowed for the evolution of medicines that in effect prolong the lives of people living with HIV to normal lifespans, meaning that if an HIV+ person follows his or her doctor, he or she can live a long and healthy life just like anybody else; in fact, there are statistics that show that a Filipino is more likely to die from fifty other causes apart from HIV/AIDS (or any other sexually transmitted diseases). Many of these fifty causes are cancers (which often appear randomly), or are due to poor health habits among Filipinos.
Case in point of HIV+ people with long life spans: Magic Johnson, a straight former NBA athlete, has had the virus for more than two decades now, and he credits his long lifespan due to proper adherence to HIV drugs.
In the Philippines, PhilHealth’s universal healthcare program (perhaps the only one good thing that BS Aquino did during his student council presidency) currently covers HIV treatment through the OTAP program. For a minimum of PhP200.00 a month, a person confirmed to be infected with HIV can avail of ARV drugs, tests and other services. An HIV+ Filipino does not need to die due to ignorance and/or neglect.
MYTH 5: GET REAL, MIDWAYHAVEN. HIV/AIDS DOESN’T EXIST!
The Facts: Yes, I was told this by someone I know in person. To my face. The fact that there are people out there who still think that HIV is the result of some conspiracy makes me want to punch those same people. AIDS denialism is the worst myth that a Filipino can believe in, because it only proves the height of ignorance he or she may harbor. Conspiracy theories about the non-existence of AIDS (or the belief that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS) are difficult to unlearn, and in the long run only worsens the pandemic.
HIV/AIDS EXISTS, AND IT STILL KILLS PEOPLE. That’s a scientific fact.
Nobody wants to get infected HIV, so it’s still best to always practice safe sex. Use condoms and lubricants. If you really have the urge to do it with another person but are afraid to get a bug, then use the internet to find ways to be creative with non-penetrative sex play.
I have a three-point plan for HIV awareness:
If you’re HIV NEGATIVE, get informed.
If you’re HIV UNSURE, get tested.
If you’re HIV POSITIVE, get treated.
Let’s face it: science shows that telling people to “keep it in your pants” is actually an ineffective way to halt HIV infections. Further stigmatizing those segments of society perceived as “immoral” only adds to the increasing numbers of the infected. The only way to (at the very least) lower the rates of infection is through an honest, rigorous and judgment-free proliferation of information. If other, more liberal/progressive countries can bring down their HIV infection rates through proper information dissemination and proper private/government support, the Philippines can do it too if Filipinos can just stop perpetuating myths.
[Photo courtesy of UNDP Philippines for undp.org.]
But enough about me.