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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Urgency of Testing for HIV

The Department of Health (DOH) released an alarming report that underscores the seriousness of the Philippines’ HIV epidemic. There are 56,000 Filipinos with HIV in the country and that number is still rising, with an average of 30 new cases reported each day, according to “The State of the Philippine HIV Epidemic 2016: Facing Challenges, Forging Solutions” by the DOH.
The data also show that the greatest number of HIV cases cluster around a certain profile or demographic. Nearly half, 49%, of HIV-infected Filipinos are homosexuals and bisexuals--particularly those who engage in male-to-male sexual intercourse. More disturbingly, HIV-infected Filipinos are mostly young people, at ages 15-24 years old.
‘Youth epidemic’

According to Dr. Rontgene Solante, infectious disease specialist at ManilaMed, more teens and college students are already getting infected with HIV. Other young people, like call center workers, in particular, are a vulnerable group.

The unprecedented spike in HIV infections among the youth has lead the National Youth Commission (NYC) to describe it as a  ‘youth epidemic’ back in 2016.

The current law for HIV testing does not allow screening for youth  below 18 years old--without the presence of any parent or guardian. This discourages at-risk teens who may already be infected from getting tested for HIV.
Teens who are sexually active are generally hesitant to open up to their parents, especially in the Philippines where sex is still a taboo topic for conversation. Those who are sexually active outside of marriage face social disapproval and shaming. These factors keep at-risk youth from having themselves tested for HIV.
In 2016, National Youth Commission Chairman Aiza Seguerra called on revising regulations for HIV testing, to allow young people to get HIV testing even without parental consent. He pointed out that more Filipinos aged 15 or younger are reported to be HIV positive. He added that it’s harder for young people to get proper diagnosis because of the stigma attached to HIV.
Stigma vs. testing
According to Dr. Solante, given than the rate of HIV testing done in the Philippines is still low, many Filipinos are now having sex with multiple partners not knowing that they are infected. This, naturally, leads to more infections. Another harmful effect is that these unaware, undiagnosed HIV-positive people are unlikely to receive anti-HIV medication until it’s too late.
A person with HIV usually has no symptoms. He or she feels good, looks healthy, and even seem fit. This means such a person would see no need to get HIV testing. All the while he or she is having sex with and infecting others. By the time that person does show or feel symptoms, it’s already too late.

“If you are HIV-positive, we already have ART or anti-retroviral therapy that can help stop the disease from progressing. It’s been shown that ART can suppress HIV so it does not become full-blown AIDS. This greatly increases an infected person’s lifespan and improves health and quality of life.

“Without treatment, an HIV-infected person would progress into the advanced stage of the disease. This is when the person already shows the symptoms of AIDS. Once a person becomes symptomatic, there’s nothing that can be done anymore. There’s no more cure and the outcome is fatal,” said Dr. Solante.
He suggests that HIV-testing be made mandatory as part of the process of job application, and part of the annual physical exam. There are already many areas where a person can get tested for HIV and this can be done discreetly without violating that person’s privacy.
Dr. Solante also says the stigma associated with HIV testing needs to be dispelled. As long as that stigma is strong, thousands of persons with HIV will not get tested. They will remain unaware that they need treatment and that they are spreading the disease. Thousands more will get AIDS and die.
“This shows that HIV testing is really crucial in stopping this epidemic,” said Dr. Solante.

The ART for HIV

By DOH’s projections, the number of HIV-infected people in the country will triple by 2022. This isn’t a case of alarmism or fear-mongering. The HIV-AIDS epidemic in the country is that serious already. Without quick and proper intervention, it will only get worse.
According to Dr. Solante, the DOH has been continuously working on campaigns to reduce HIV cases.
For one, they’re administering immediate care after diagnosis. Then, they encourage people to get screened as early as possible. And finally, they’re advocating enrollment for a viral-suppressing treatment called antiretroviral therapy or ART.

ART is a combination of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs that contain HIV. Make no mistake, the therapy doesn’t kill or cure the virus, but it prevents it from further growth and transmission. Dr. Solante added that ART is free and is accessible at various government hospitals, health centers, and treatment hubs. Supplies for 2 – 3 months are provided, so patients aren’t required to visit monthly.

Thanks to medical advances, HIV is no longer a death sentence. When treated with ART, plus changes in one’s lifestyle, behavior, and sexual practices (like using condoms), HIV becomes a chronic but highly manageable disease. Patients who observe proper and continuing treatment plus a healthy lifestyle can have a normal and long life.

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