Get yourself tested: Health experts on new HIV strain

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DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 4 March) – Following the Department of Health’s public advisory on Thursday about the newly-discovered stronger strain of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), local health experts expressed their concern towards the key population in the region who remains vulnerable.

Dr. Jordana Ramiterre, head of the Reproductive Health and Wellness Center (RHWC) of the Davao City Health Office, said there is no better time for people to have themselves tested than now.

Ramiterre said that people who feel that they might have been exposed to HIV are strongly encouraged to have themselves tested in the soonest time possible. Voluntary counseling and testing services for HIV are free in RHWC located along Jacinto Street in Davao City.

She said that while there is still no cure to HIV, treatments to keep a person’s viral load (the amount of HIV in the blood) at undetectable levels are readily available.

“Don’t wait for signs and symptoms to catch up,” she said, referring to the opportunistic infections that may enter the body when it’s weakened by HIV. Even if a person is tested HIV negative, he/she can still avail of the counseling services that can cover behavior change and discourage risky sexual behavior.

Ramiterre echoed DOH’s advisory: while CRF19 is not something that the Philippines should worry about for now, she said the country is not totally immune from the new strain.

Speaking in a 24 Oras report, Dr. Gerard Belimac, HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STI) program manager of DOH, said the new strain was discovered in Cuba.

Dubbed CRF19, the virus could easily reach the Philippines so the migration and movement of people living with HIV (PLHIV) should always be taken into serious consideration.

One of the most notable characteristics of HIV is being dynamic: It always changes form that is why developing vaccines is very difficult.

According to a news story published in Independent.co.uk, this new HIV strain causes a person to progress to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) twice as fast as the average strain of the disease.

This means that those who are infected by the stronger strain are left with a shorter window to seek treatment. “The [HIV] strain can progress to AIDS within three years if left untreated,” said the report.

According to DOH, a regular HIV strain progresses to AIDS in seven years.

The CRF19 strain was discovered by researchers from Cuba and a professor in Leuven University in Belgium.

Ramiterre emphasized the need for the public to be more cautious of their sexual practices and to always use protection during intercourse.

RHWC peer educator and counselor Francis Curtis (not his real name), who is a PLHIV, reminded the public of the ABC approach to keep HIV at bay: Abstinence (from sex), Be faithful (to your partner), Use a Condom (for protection).

More importantly, he said educating oneself about HIV/AIDS is very important.

An October 2014 AFP report, which quoted scientists about the origin of AIDS (which traced it to the 1920s in the city of Kinshasa, in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo), pointed out that one of the main factors that caused the spread of the virus were transportation, population growth and unprotected sex.

According to DOH, there were at least 6,000 reported cases of HIV in the country in 2014, but the number of unreported may reach as high as 12,000.

As of December 2014, the latest figures in the Philippine HIV and AIDS Registry from the National Epidemiology Center show that there are a total of 1,095 HIV cases in Davao City.

In 2014, Region 11 was among the top five regions in the country where there is a high reported number of HIV cases.

HIV is transmitted by having unprotected sex (anal, vaginal) with someone who has the virus and by sharing needles/syringes used to prepare injection drugs. According to Aids.gov, Certain body fluids from an HIV-infected person can transmit HIV. These body fluids are blood, semen (cum), pre-seminal fluid (pre-cum), rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, breast milk.

“These body fluids must come into contact with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue or be directly injected into your bloodstream (by a needle or syringe) for transmission to possibly occur,” an article in the website said.

HIV is not transmitted by air or water, insects (mosquitoes), saliva, sweat, tears, casual physical contact (hugging, shaking hands, sharing eating utensils), and toilet seats, although these common misconceptions still exist, leading to the stigma.

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