Health officials raise alarm bells on HIV cases in Surigao City

SURIGAO CITY (MindaNews / 9 Jan) – Local health officials are raising alarm bells on the rate of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) cases in the city as the number of those afflicted with the disease has already reached three in two years’ time.

Jessica L. Nepomuceno, program coordinator of the STI/HIV/AIDS Program of the City Health Office, said the figure does not include those that are unreported, citing the prohibition on compulsory testing for the ailment.

Under Republic Act 8504 or the Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998, Article III, Section 16 prohibits compulsory HIV testing and “is deemed unlawful” if forced.

“This is actually one of the setbacks since we really can’t force anyone to undertake testing. The 2012 case was actually a referral from Butuan City since the victim is based here,” Nepomuceno said.

A document acquired by MindaNews showed Surigao City has a total of four HIV-positive cases from the period 1995 to July 2012.

But it was learned that in 2009, a study was conducted using the Integrated HIV Behavioral Serologic Surveillance (IHBSS) which showed that the rate of increase in terms of epidemiological rate posed an alarming figure.

Dr. Romulo Ybiernas, resident doctor and coordinator for the HIV/AIDS campaign of the CHO in Brgy. Washington, disclosed that a one-percent increase is a cause for alarm “when 10 years ago, HIV/AIDS was not yet known in the city, but suddenly, in a span of two or three years we have such cases as this.”

The document showed one HIV-positive case in 2011, another one in 2012 plus the additional case that was referred from Butuan City.

Nepomuceno said the reported HIV in 2009 here caused some shockwaves in the medical community “more so in 2012.”

Ybiernas said several years ago key centers in Mindanao – like Davao, Cagayan de Oro, General Santos City and Butuan – reported only minimal cases of HIV afflicted persons. But when the cases started to shoot up, it was only the time when people started to take notice of the issue.

“And we don’t want this to happen in Surigao. We are just a small community, there is no reason for Surigaonons to not know about this,” said the physician who took part in spearheading the Red Tie Run 2012, a fun-run to raise HIV/AIDS awareness.

Cold indifference

Ybiernas and another source from the Surigao City Local AIDS Council who spoke with MindaNews on condition of anonymity observed that government support in drumbeating public support on the issue has been met with cold indifference.

“We have zero government support,” the doctor said, a fact which the source from the City Local AIDS Council confirmed. “There is more emphasis on harping on investments coming in the city but without offering support to better social services,” the source added.

Nepomuceno, for her part, said there is limited source in the campaign against the ailment with P115,000 annually. “We still have to deduct money from that for the Social Hygiene Clinic,” she said.

The United Nations 8 Millennium Development Goals project that by 2015 HIV/AIDS reported cases have “halted and begun to reverse the spread of HIV and AIDS.”

Ybiernas said this can only be realized if there is a pro-active participation from government and also the public in combatting the spread of the disease by raising awareness.

The physician-athlete emphasized the importance to break religious taboo on sexual discourse and the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS.

He said the lack of knowledge on the disease, which is still pervasive in a small community like Surigao, can further spread the disease.

“Of course there is no information about this and everyone seems to be indifferent about HIV and AIDS, (the) sexual practices that can cause the illness will perpetuate,” he said.

He said contrary to common perception that HIV is transmitted primarily through sexual intercourse with several partners, the recent study shows the primary cause for transmission is men having sex with men (MSM).

“What was known before was the disease is due to multiple sex partners and women who are involved in the sex trade. But recent studies show that it’s actually an occurrence of men having sex with men,” the physician said.

Nepomuceno said what is even alarming about the trend is that it is common among men from 15 to 24 years old. “All our cases are 24 in age and male,” she said.

Both health officials said there is a need to double-time efforts to educate the public and Nepomuceno said she will continue to focus her campaign with high schools students.

The Council has also tied up with the Surigao Unified Gay Association (SUGA) in information-education campaign activities.

The Red Tie Run, which was co-sponsored with the Surigao Runners Club and the CHO, was joined by several peer educators who were also members of SUGA who acted as marshals. (Vanessa L. Almeda / MindaNews)