DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/13 April) – The Department of Health (DOH) has raised a red flag for Davao City for being one of the six cities in the country to have high HIV prevalence rates.
According to news reports, in a workshop last Thursday in Tarlac, Dr. Jose Gerard Belimac, program manager of the department’s National HIV/STI Prevention Program, said that Davao City has an HIV prevalence rate that is higher than the 3.5 national average.
“Our national prevalence is 3.5 percent but there are cities which posed a higher prevalence rate,” he said. Data from 2013 show that the prevalence rate of Davao was at five percent.
The other cities on the list are Quezon City (6.7 percent), Manila (6.7 percent), Caloocan (5.3 percent), Cebu (7.7 percent), and Cagayan de Oro (4.7 percent).
“According to the World Health Organization (WHO), if you exceed five percent in two years’ time, then HIV in these areas will really be uncontrollable. So we should not let the prevalence rate reach five percent,” Belimac said in a presentation in the workshop.
For the month of February, there were 646 new reported HIV cases in the country—another all-time high since the Philippines’ first case in 1984. Sexual contact (586 out of 646) was the most common transmission; 84 percent of the 586 cases are homosexual contact.
The HIV prevalence rate among males who have sex with males (MSM) has increased from 0.3 percent in 2007 to 3.50 percent in 2013, Belimac said in a Rappler news story.
“We cannot force those who don’t want to use condoms,” he said in the same story; current condom use prevalence among MSM (at 35 percent) lags behind the 80 percent government target.
Earlier last March, the country director of the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS said that there is an already existing HIV epidemic in the country, based on the rapid spread of the virus.
Teresita Marie Bagasao described the kind of HIV epidemic here as “concentrated.” This means that the general population is not affected; instead, HIV severely affects certain groups: MSMs, commercial sex workers, and OFWs.
Bagasao also said that the real numbers could be higher than the reported figures. “No country can say the exact number of people living with HIV,” she said, adding that the current figures may just be the medium range. “But it can go as high as 35,000 right now.”
In a separate email interview with MindaNews, Bagasao said that there is a global call to end HIV/AIDS by 2030.
“For the Philippines, ending HIV/AIDS is defined as less than 500 new HIV infections a year,” she said. “The country can achieve ending HIV/AIDS even before 2030 if it starts to adequately fund the Health Sector Plan for prevention services for key populations.”
This means having to increase from the current coverage of less than 50% to 80% coverage, and get 90% of people living with HIV on treatment.
She emphasized the importance of the efforts of the communities to reach out to the key populations most vulnerable by the virus.
“Communities are essential partners of the response,” she said. “By partnering and empowering communities, key populations with high risk of HIV infection can be reached with prevention programs and can help motivate their peers to seek prevention, HIV counseling and testing, and relevant treatment, care and support services.”
Patrick Albit, a Global Fund HIV project site implementation officer who works at the Reproductive Health and Wellness Center (RHWC) here in Davao said that the group of peer counselors in DOH’s social hygiene clinic are all focused on the community.
In the coming months, they are eying on creating a different kind of community-based HIV testing where members of civil organizations will lead the pack in bringing the testing process to niche areas in the city. These organizations will still be guided by health experts and will closely coordinate with them.
This will be on top of the regular counseling and testing existing services of RHWC, information campaigns, and special schedules of to cater to specific groups of people who can’t have themselves tested on regular work hours.
Bagasao also stressed the need to strengthen information campaigns on HIV.
“While information is available on the HIV situation in the country, efforts could be strengthened to provide information on where people can go for HIV-related services,” she said. “As the mode of transmission reported in the Philippines is unprotected sex, implementation of the Responsible Parenthood Act provision of age appropriate sexuality education is important contribution.”
“We also need to consider that as services are improving and expanding, more HIV cases are diagnosed and reported. However, a number of these cases are diagnosed late. So we need to accelerate our efforts so that information and services reach more people faster and sooner so they come for their HIV testing and know their results sooner,” she added.
Addressing stigma is also an integral component that she believes should also work harmoniously with the current system of HIV prevention efforts.
“We also need to continue talking publicly about the issue and acknowledge that we have a problem with a solution within our means. We need to sensitize the public to reduce the stigma attached to HIV. Stigma and discrimination continues to be one of major barriers for people to access services,” she said.
Not just a medical issue
“HIV and AIDS are more than just medical issues,” Bagasao commented. “It’s also a social issue where those most at risk face society’s judgment (as being promiscuous, immoral, etc.). More than just providing information, commodities, drugs and services, we need to empower people to protect themselves. We need to create a society that respects and protects the human dignity inherent in all of us, including people at most risk for HIV, including working hand in hand with them to address the country’s HIV epidemic.”
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. (Jesse Pizarro Boga/MindaNews)