While the overall rate of HIV infections has been gradually decreasing in Asia in recent years due to aggressive awareness and preventions programs, the Philippines remains an exception. In fact, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) estimated that the rate of new infections has increased by more than 50 percent between 2010 and 2015 in the Philippines, particularly among gay men, drug users, and transgender and female prostitutes (Almendral, 2017). Furthermore, only 17 percent of Filipinos between the ages of 15 to 24 are aware of HIV and how it spreads (Almendral, 2017). To make matters worse, only five percent of HIV-positive pregnant women receive antiretroviral medicines to prevent mother-to-child transmission, and some of them, especially the younger mothers, have never taken an HIV test before (UNICEF). By the end of 2017, the Philippine Health Department estimates that more than 55,000 Filipinos will have HIV (Chooi, 2017).
In order to combat this issue, primary prevention efforts are targeting adolescents because the initiation to sex and drug use usually occurs between 14 and 19 years of age, and there is a strong relationship between sex and drug use and HIV infections (UNICEF). There is also a general consensus among public health professionals that successful national AIDS programs use condoms and that unprotected sex is the key culprit of this epidemic. However, these prevention efforts have faced resistance from the government. For example, in January 2017, the Philippine Department of Education proposed a plan developed by the Health Department to distribute condoms to juniors and seniors in public high schools to provide basic sex education training for teachers who can counsel students and encourage sex positive environments (Almendral, 2017). However, a conservative backlash from parents, the Roman Catholic Church and politicians opposed the plan. Government officials like Senator Vicente Soto III believe that distributing condoms encourages promiscuity, while some parents claim that abstinence is the best way to reduce HIV infections (Almendral, 2017). By limiting access to condoms, the conservative government has turned to antiretroviral therapy as a solution, but many Filipinos do not seek treatment because they are not aware if they have have HIV in the first place, making antiretroviral therapy largely ineffective.
Recognizing these limitations, Senator Risa Hontiveros proposed a law on March 15, 2017 that will improve access to HIV prevention services, including sex education and HIV testing (Chooi, 2017). The law will also lower the age requirement from 18 to 15 for adolescents who can get tested without parental consent in order to encourage vulnerable populations to seek treatment. By doing so, Hontiveros hopes to fight the social stigma attached to HIV that has prevented these people from seeking treatment in the first place (Chooi, 2017). This could be an effective solution, as an increase in rates of seeking treatment could lead to an increase in seeking the antiretroviral therapy that the conservative government wants to implement, which depends heavily on HIV awareness from the affected population. Furthermore, the law prohibits health insurers from denying coverage to people with HIV in order to fight any discrimination toward Filipinos with HIV (Chooi, 2017). On the other hand, critics have lamented that the new law does not mention condoms, which can play a crucial role in HIV prevention. Currently, President Rodrigo Duterte is signing an executive order to increase access to modern family planning, while other government officials are encouraging the Health Department to improve access to condoms through other mediums besides schools.
Almendral, Aurora (2017, February 8). As H.I.V. Soars in Philippines, Conservatives Kill School Condom Plan. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/28/world/asia/as-hiv-soars-in-philippines-conservatives-kill-school-condom-plan.html
Chooi, Clara (2017, March 18). ‘Gone too soon’ no more: Philippines on legal route to end HIV epidemic. Retrieved from https://asiancorrespondent.com/2017/03/gone-soon-no-philippines-legal-route-end-hiv-epidemic/#pTBrGDdJ8TwzwPZb.97
United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund Philippines. HIV and AIDS. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/philippines/hivaids.html#.WNAbEbYrKqD