Wanted: Condoms!

The Philippines continues to have a worsening HIV crisis, with 31 new diagnosed cases of HIV per day. Correct and consistent condom use is one of the best ways to prevent the transmission of HIV. Yet the Philippine government and the Department of Health (DOH) are not prioritizing condom promotion. From what I have seen and heard I can discern two reasons: decision-makers prioritize their personal religious beliefs over public health good. Or because they do not realize how big of a problem HIV is and will continue to become.

Within our MIMAROPA region, Palawan has the highest number of People living with HIV/AIDS (PLHIV). Our HIV crisis continues to disproportionately affect young people, with 84% of new infections in 2017 being to people under the age of 35. And although the raw numbers of new infections are not high when compared with the entire country, Puerto Princesa has a high proportion of infections to people at risk.

Recognizing Palawan’s growing HIV problem, several years ago the DOH opened an HIV treatment center in Puerto Princesa, thereby allowing PLHIV access to life-saving antiretroviral therapy (ARTs) in the region, rather than forcing them to travel to Manila for treatment. There are several testing centers in Puerto Princesa. Here is a complete list.  Testing is also available outside of the city, in Narra, El Nido, and Brooke’s Point. This is great news for Palawan residents.

It is good to test people so that they can know their status, begin medication and protect others by not passing on the virus. However, the key tool for preventing HIV transmission among sexually active people, condoms, continues to be ignored. The national Department of Health used to supply the province and city with regular stocks of condoms, but in recent months has had delays in procuring and providing Palawan with condoms. HIV and reproductive health advocates around the country have complained of similar delays.

The Philippine Senate recently passed a new bill that will amend the existing AIDS Law in reaction to the worsening crisis. While the bill takes some progressive steps such as lowering the age young people can be tested for HIV without parental consent from 18 to 15, the bill fails to promote condom use. Human Rights Watch has released a statement calling this lack of promotion a big mistake. Their Philippines researcher, Carlos Conde, says, “The failure to make promotion of condom use an official government priority reflects a damaging defeat by the ideological biases of conservative lawmakers and the Catholic Church over proper public health practice. Condoms, when used properly, are scientifically proven to be one of the best methods to prevent HIV transmission. Unless that message is integrated into the new AIDS law – perhaps during the harmonizing of the two congressional versions, or during the drafting of implementing rules and regulations – the struggle to contain the epidemic will get even tougher.”

Another way to view this situation that should be compelling to the government is to look at the costs of inaction. Anti-RH politicians time and time again say they don’t want to use government funds to buy condoms. But the government pays for the ART treatment that PLHIV needs. One pack of condoms costs P30. One month of ARTs for just one person costs P30,000. Factor in the loss to productivity in the economy from PLHIV too sick to work and it becomes even clearer. Condom use is not only life-saving, it also makes economic sense.

President Duterte has been generally supportive of reproductive health, which is an important boost for the Department of Health. However,  last year, President Duterte drew criticism for telling people to avoid condom use because it makes sex less pleasurable. Opposition politicians, NGOs, and reproductive health activists condemned his statements pointing out the fact that discouraging condom use has devastating effects on HIV infection and unplanned pregnancy rates.

The President and his government, especially the Department of Health, need to do more to support condom dissemination and use, coupled with comprehensive sexuality education. Filipino lives depend on it.


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