December 1 is World AIDS Day (WAD2017). It is a day to commemorate and remember all the lives lost to AIDS, a chance to show solidarity and support to people living with HIV/AIDS (PLHIV), and an opportunity to raise awareness about the continuing HIV problem and the need to reduce infections and find a cure.
This year, one of the central themes of WAD2017 is to end the stigma and discrimination still associated with HIV, to end the spread of new infections, and to end the disease with a cure. Individuals and organizations all over the world will be joining a global conversation online and will be using the hashtag #LetsEndIt.
Here in Palawan, there will be events about HIV, ending stigma, and showing support for LGBT individuals starting on November 28 and culminating with a final concert at the City Coliseum on December 2. The events are being organized by the Local AIDS Council, which is composed of local NGOs, hospitals, government departments and the academe.
We hope to use WAD2017 to amplify the message that HIV is here in Palawan and we must address it. Here are some key facts about the HIV situation in Palawan:
- HIV is here and it is stronger than it was before.
HIV is thriving in Palawan. Of the 219 cases that have been recorded since 1984, 39 were confirmed in the first half of this year. Granted this is because of increased testing, but it also shows the danger.
Many people test positive for HIV, but never come back for their results so currently don’t even know they are positive. And many more people have HIV but have not been tested yet.
Currently, 94 cases of HIV in Palawan have been linked to care. Almost all of them were diagnosed late. Troubling patterns are emerging that show an HIV virus that is more aggressive and that is destroying immune systems faster than in years past. Previous patterns of HIV showed that someone would often live with a normal immune system for 5-10 years after being infected with HIV. At the Provincial Hospital, doctors are now seeing the characteristics of “full-blown AIDS”, or extremely weakened immune systems only 2-4 years after someone is infected, and even among young people whose immune systems and health are generally stronger. We need to catch cases earlier.
- Young people are particularly at risk.
At the moment, a staggering 91% of Palawan’s PLHIV are below 34 years old. This is not surprising when you consider that in the Philippines, many young people begin having sex, usually unprotected while they are still teenagers. Currently, young people need parental consent to access contraceptives and HIV testing if they are below 18 years old. This results in young people not seeking services until they show symptoms. We know that young people are engaging in risky behavior, some as early as 12, and we are not protecting them or offering them testing until they are 18. Those 6 years without protection and support put many other young people at risk, and the HIV infection age range shows that.
Young children are also at risk. Palawan has cases of mother to child transmission (MTCT) of HIV. Puerto Princesa recently diagnosed its first child case of HIV. The child is 4 years old. To try to prevent further MTCT HIV cases, the City Health Office has been proactively encouraging pregnant women to be screened for HIV as part of their routine prenatal check ups. We must continue to push for this as MTCT is preventable. If HIV is diagnosed during a pregnancy, the pregnant woman can take antiretroviral medication to avoid passing the virus on to her baby.
- Men AND women are getting HIV.
A lot of people are in denial about who HIV can affect and like to think of HIV as a “gay disease”. While the majority cases diagnosed here in Palawan are men who have sex with men, many are bisexual and the number of heterosexual cases is increasing.
There was recently a case of a young man who was bisexual – he had sexual relationships with both men and women. He was infected with HIV and had several girlfriends. All 3 of his previous girlfriends now have HIV. One is only 18 years old and was infected when she had sex with him at age 16. He is the only man she has ever had a sexual relationship with. Perhaps these women will be able to survive because they are accessing care. The man has already died.
We must not treat HIV like an illness that only certain populations get. We are all at risk whenever we engage in unprotected sex or reuse needles.
Stigma and discrimination are alive and well in Palawan.
Many people still do not understand HIV and are scared of the virus. This is natural as we often fear what we don’t understand. The harm is that this lack of understanding leads people to behave in discriminatory ways towards people living with HIV. People who have been diagnosed with HIV have been disowned by their families and rejected by their friends. Some of the patients accessing care at Provincial Hospital do not have adequate money for food and nutrition. They do not have any support from loved ones because they are often too afraid to disclose their status.
It is important to note that the emotional and psychosocial state of HIV patients is incredibly linked with their ability to survive and thrive. Patients who are also undergoing emotional devastation can have faster deterioration of physical health. Literally, your discrimination and bad treatment of someone living with HIV could kill them.
We must address these issues in order to prevent further escalation of HIV infection in Palawan. We must educate ourselves. We must educate each other. We must practice safe sex. We must get tested for HIV. If positive, we must access treatment. We must show compassion and step up efforts to end the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV.
I hope you will all participate in the events to mark WAD2017. Information on events is below:
- University Caravan, City Coliseum (8am-5pm)
- LGBT Summit, Mendoza Park (1pm-6pm)
- Mardis Gras, Junction 1 to Mendoza Park (3pm)
- WAD2017 Concert featuring Xander Ford, with special guests Magic Tuod and Home Sweet Home Charmz, City Coliseum (7pm-11pm)