Saturday, March 27, 2010

Epidemiological shift

“In some groups, such as young gay men, infection rates have recently risen again, perhaps because the highly successful treatment options with lifelong antiretroviral (ARV) therapy have turned AIDS into an apparently less dreadful and more manageable disease. AIDS has lost some of its horror for many people. But believe me: It’s not something you’d want.” Kevin de Cock, the WHO's chief strategist in the fight against AIDS

Alarmed, Sec. Esperanza Cabral of the Department of Health (DOH) confronted head-on the selective morality espoused by the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines when she and the entire DOH machinery distributed condoms and flowers on St. Valentine’s Day to passers-by.

While local politicians are afraid to confront the Church, Sec. Cabral’s actions is like punching the misplaced righteousness of the local leaders of the Catholic faith using Pacquiao’s left hook. Running amok, Church officials in particular the bishops then turned their ire to the courageous Dr. Cabral and vow to punish her.

Though relatively small compared to other Asia-Pacific countries, incidence of HIV-positive reported cases in our country, experts warned, is just a tip of the iceberg. Which lead major actors in the male sexual health to spearhead a conference on HIV.

June of last year, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) together with TLF Share Collective Inc., Health Action Information Network (HAIN), Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC) and Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (APCOM) attended by various community-based and non government organizations all over the country, sponsored a national conference aimed at confronting the rising, albeit at an alarming rate, the HIV/AIDS cases in the Philippines.

The First National Conference on Men Who Have Sex with Men and Transgender and HIV (MSM/TG), the first of its kind in the Philippines, is meant to address the shift by gathering data from the ground in order to come up with an all round analysis and intervention of the alarming epidemiological shift.

Last December, the DOH through the National Epidemiological Center (NEC) and the United Nations AIDS (UNAIDS), a multi-UN agency tasked to confront the epidemic launched the 2009 Integrated HIV Behavioral and Serologic Surveillance (IHBSS) through the National Dissemination Forum (NDF)

With utmost clarity, the NDF established the fact that while global infections has dropped to 17 percent, but the number of new infections in the Philippines has increased by 334 percent. HIV/AIDS epidemic in our country spread like wild fire in most at risk populations (MARP).

In an e-mail I received from the DOH NEC last January, unfortunately I just opened it the other day in time for the writing of this piece, the sad news is this January alone, there were already 143 new HIV Ab sero positive individuals confirmed by the STD/AIDS Cooperative Central Laboratory and reported to the HIV and AIDS Registry. According to the well prepared presentation by the DOH NEC, this was a 120% increase compared to the same period last year.

Of the 143 individuals reported, 58 were detected from voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) as part of ongoing community outreach activities.

Most of the cases (87%) were males. The median age was 28 years (age range: 16-61 years). The 20-24 year (26%) and 25-29 year (24%) age-groups had the most cases. Forty percent (57) of reported cases were from the National Capital Region (NCR).

The document added, of the 143 HIV positive cases, two were reported as AIDS. Both were single males who acquired the infection through homosexual contact. There were no reported deaths on the other hand.

The message was clear: there is a shift of HIV-positive cases in the Philippines.

From commercial sex workers (CSW) during the early 80s, to the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the 90s, HIV infection shifted from heterosexual to MSM transmission in our country. In fact, in May 2009 alone, a whopping 88 percent increase transmitted through sexual contacts between males having sex with male (MSMs).

The NDF titled “This Is It” which was passionately delivered by NEC Head Dr. Eric Tayag warned us that anyone can get infected with HIV, even unborn babies. And added, but some groups are more at risk than others because of HIV associated behaviors but are not limited to unprotected vaginal and anal sex, multiple sex partners and re-use of needles and syringes while injecting drugs. Lack of information and inadequate prevention programmes and services among most-at-risk groups compound risks.

Confronting the shift is actually a challenge not just to the affected sector but to the entire community as well, including its staunch opponents, like the church. After all, the victims are actually God’s people, and they are the flock the good Lord is referring to be saved from the dreaded epidemic.

Given the misplaced priorities of the current regime, the issue on health and safety of our population remains at risk. Add to that is the arrest of 43 health workers who volunteered time, talent and resources just so the government’s inefficiency on matters related to the implementation of basic social services, such as health, are narrowed.

In fact the DOH own admission, health per capita allocation is only P252.49 for every Filipino each year. This means only P0.70 is allocated for every Filipino per day, an amount less than what government allocated for every bullet a standard M16 assault riffle used by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, according to the Health Alliance for Democracy (HEAD).

The national budget for 2010 is P1.541 trillion and the budget allocation for health is P33.678 billion or 2.2 percent of the national budget. The Department of National Defense (DND) is assured with at least P73.6 billion, more than twice the DOH budget.

Given the current circumstances, it is Sec. Cabral and other pro-choice Catholics (and non-Catholics) who are heeding the Gospel just so the challenge to confront the HIV/AIDS epidemic as well as homophobia as a major uphill battle in the fight to stop the spread of the disease.

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