Overcoming barriers to better HIV testing in the Philippines | Asia Pacific

Overcoming barriers to better HIV testing in the Philippines

Overcoming barriers to better HIV testing in the Philippines

Updated 24 July 2014, 16:27 AEST

The number of HIV cases in the Philippines has been on a steady increase since 2007 and fears about HIV AIDS have not abated.

Philippine-based journalist Simone Orendain recently visited an AIDS research and treatment clinic outside Manila to find out how people living with HIV are coping with the stigma of the disease more than 30 years after it was first discovered.

Reporter: Simone Orendain

Speakers: Raymon Lumanlan, HIV-positive Manila health clinic worker; Angel, HIV positive man; Dr. Rosanna Ditangco, Research Institute of Tropical Medicine, Manila

ORENDAIN: Men wearing surgical masks walk in and out of the AIDS clinic of the Research Institute of Tropical Medicine. On a typical day, the doctors see between 100 to 120 patients.

DITANGCO: "So how many sexual partners since you've been active? More than 10, 20, 50?...20 to 50…"

ORENDAIN: Dr. Rosanna Ditangco heads the AIDS Research Group at the institute, which keeps the national registry of HIV Positive blood units. She says this group of patients in the Manila suburb of Alabang is representative of the rest of the country.

DITANGCO:"If you look at the profile now of Filipinos with HIV, they are basically young men in their 20's and they are young urban professionals or college students."

Dr. Ditangco says they're mostly men having sex with men. And the numbers are on an upward trend. The Philippine AIDS and HIV Registry's May report shows 495 newly recorded cases. That's up 19 percent from the same period a year ago. From January through May the registry recorded 2,300 cases.

One of the men who fits the profile is Angel. He's a 28-year old high school teacher and he was diagnosed with HIV in 2011. He volunteers at the clinic.

ANGEL: "We are here to encourage them, to give them the meaning of true life. That they have to live to the fullest so we're here to do that, to make them happy and to help them to ease the pain."

ORENDAIN: Angel says he has talked to lots of patients who become suicidal because they're overcome with shame.

Dr. Ditangco says this is the strongest form of stigma that can develop and it's difficult to shake.

DITANGCO:"They still feel that the circumstances by which they got the infection, even for themselves, is not morally or socially acceptable. So I think that is the main problem now. It's not really the general population's perception of who you are as an HIV positive person but how you perceive yourself."

ORENDAIN: Angel keeps a positive attitude and he believes his strong faith in God is what keeps him healthy. He doesn't need antiretroviral medication.

Angel has plenty of support from most of the family. But he keeps it secret from his sister.

ANGEL: "When we watched a news [story] about HIV, she told me, 'Oh no Angel, once you get that disease, forget me. You can't touch your nephew. You can't touch your niece.' So that's why I don't tell it to her."

ORENDAIN: He also can't tell the people at work, or his best friend at church. Angel says he has a friend who lost his job after the friend told his manager he was HIV positive.

A 1998 Philippine law says no one can discriminate against a person with HIV or AIDS and preventive education is key. Yet, the prevailing pattern is incomplete information about the disease and how it spreads.

Dr. Ditangco says HIV/AIDS is part of science curriculum in the education system.

DITANGCO: "It's not yet from the orientation of gender and sensitivity and behavior. So it's not yet in that context that it is being taught in school because that is a very sensitive topic."

ORENDAIN: For one thing, contraception is a hot-button issue in this 82-percent Roman Catholic country. A reproductive health law was finally enacted in 2012 after about 15 years of debate. The Church argued that easy availability of contraception would promote promiscuity.

Dr. Ditangco says even for some gays who are considered high risk, HIV is a sensitive topic and a discussion to avoid.

In 2012 Raymon Lumanlan lost most of his friends after they found out he was HIV positive. He's 28 and he only has 40 percent of his vision because his compromised immune system makes him susceptible to a virus that got to his eyes. Mr. Lumanlan is on maintenance medication and he works as a site implementation officer at the clinic.

LUMANLAN: "Doctora told us that, that's the best thing you could do in your life is to have a test. I had the courage to that. Some of them [do] not. And then I told them, 'You cannot escape from your own shadow' because birds who are the same feathers flock together sometimes."

ORENDAIN: The UN Development Programme says less than one percent of the national population is HIV positive. But still, it says the increase from one case reported per day in 2000 to five a day in 2010 is "cause for concern."

Dr. Ditangco says the health department estimates just one quarter of people with HIV actually get tested.

One reason people don't get tested: stigma.

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