Suspension of Disbelief

Archive for May 2014

Remembering those who died of AIDS

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VERA Files and Yahoo Philippines | 27 May 2014

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Red-Ribbon-the-symbol-of-HIV-prevention

As of May this year, 966 Filipinos have already died of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) since 1984.

To remember those who had passed on because of the AIDS pandemic, members of the people living with human immunodeficiency virus (PLHIV) community and support groups, organizations and foundations held a candlelight memorial in Quezon City last May 18.

The event, spearheaded by Project Red Ribbon and the University of the Philippines (UP) Student Council, marked the annual celebration of International AIDS Candlelight Memorial (IACM).

Through the years, different organizations have hosted IACM events, to remind everyone that there is still not enough education and awareness about HIV/AIDS.

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“IACM is all about honoring the people who passed on. We want to highlight their stories, learn from their experiences and at the same impart to everyone that there is still a growing need for education,” Pozzie Pinoy, founder of the Project Red Ribbon, explained. “We want to be more current, we want to be more dramatic this time — to make an impact and to make a commitment to the souls who had passed on that we can all be an instrument to make a change.”

Project Red Ribbon is a care management program that links advocacy groups with individuals to assist them to obtain discreet HIV testing, while also conducting awareness programs, and most importantly, provide care and support for PLHIV. It is also the only organization where 99% of the managers are PHLIVs.

“The PLHIV community wants to reach out to other organizations to show them that we are here and that we need their help. And the government should continue talking to different HIV/AIDS advocacy groups so they can hear the real problems.” Pinoy stressed.

The UP Student Council, for its part, expressed its intent to make HIV awareness more apparent.

“We want to bring the issue of HIV/AIDS here in UP, because the number of cases among the youth have been increasing continuously, and we also hope that other universities will do the same. The issue of gender and health awareness is very important, and everyone should be involved in this,” Julian Tanaka, councilor of the UP Student Council, said.

Working-together-to-enlighten-those-in-the-dark-about-HIV.Julius Elorpe, HIV program coordinator of Pilipinas Shell Foundation, said they have several HIV programs that seek to provide correct HIV information to the business sector through HIV 101 lectures. Elorpe described the programs as “the Philippine Business Sector’s response to the growing HIV/AIDS cases in the Philippines.”

“We encourage the business sectors, especially the private businesses, to have an HIV policy in the workplace… in line with RA 8504 or the HIV/AIDS law, which mandates each of the private companies to give basic information about HIV to their employees, as well as provide linkages to support HIV testing,” he said.

There is still no cure for AIDS, but over the years, the status of PLHIVs has improved because of ARVs (antiretroviral medicines) used in the treatment of HIV infection.

It has been reported that the Department of Health (DOH) has been experiencing a “delay in deliveries” of ARVs but it has kept mum on the issue to avoid unnecessary panic among the PLHIV community. Instead, the DOH has been focusing on other issues like the proposed mandatory HIV testing of those who are at risk of the disease.

“We feel that they [in the DOH] don’t listen to us. We feel that with the shortage of ARVs – they are not doing anything… and because of the delay, some PLHIVs are switching their ARVs from one to another, which is so hurtful to one’s health,” Pinoy said.

“We want transparency and open communication from our government. The PLHIV community has been panicking for the past three months now, and the DOH has not been that transparent with its programs when it comes to ARV supplies,” he added.

The Philippines is currently receiving support from the Global Fund’s Transitional Funding Mechanism to help fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.

PhilHealth, on the other hand, has come up with Outpatient HIV/AIDS Treatment (OHAT) package for persons with HIV/AIDS, which entitles them to a P30,000 insurance package every year.

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(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”

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Are the efforts of the Phl gov’t enough for PLHIV?

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Outrage Magazine | 26 May 2014

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HIV

“They should continue talking to different LGBT organizations and different HIV advocacy groups so they will know the real problems.”

That, in a gist, was the plea echoed during the observance of the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial (IACM) this 2014.

IACM is an annual international gathering that commemorates those who passed on because of AIDS. Over the years, it has transformed from being just a memorial to an event where people can also be educated about the HIV pandemic. It’s also a time for different organizations to pledge their support for the PLHIV community.

This year’s gathering, attended by PLHIV from all over the country, different LGBTQ organizations and foundations, was spearheaded by the Project Red Ribbon.

“We did a different twist with the memorial. We wanted to do something more current; we wanted it to be more dramatic. Over the years, other organizations have hosted the event, but it has been just mainly a memorial, and we wanted to change that. We wanted to inspire other PLHIV and the rest of the community that there is still hope and that we need to continue fighting,” said Pozzie Pinoy, founder of the Project Red Ribbon.

As of today, the Department of Health (DOH) remains unsteady when it comes to its programs for PLHIV. The resources that have been allotted to sustain the care and management of PLHIV are lacking, if not fluctuating.

This is even if – when the DOH released its March update on the number of HIV cases in the country – it showed a significant increase in the number of new HIV cases in the country. It seems like the increasing number is (still) not that alarming for the DOH, and so its efforts are (still) wanting.

The same sentiment was shared by the attendees of IACM 2014.

“I think what the government is not doing well is targeting the response to where the epidemic is and that is men who have sex with men. We still need a lot of change in terms of messaging the advocacy and the campaign,” said Benedict Bernabe, CARE officer of Yoga For Life, said.

Yoga For Life is a community-based organization that provides free yoga and meditation classes to PLHIV and to organizations who support PLHIV.

As for the student council of the University of the Philippines, the amount of information being released by the DOH is not enough.

“They should definitely do education first. Information, information, information. Awareness is the key in solving any problem. It’s always the first step in bigger things. Kapag ‘yung information dissemination became successful, we won’t be needing mandatory HIV testing. Kusang darating ang mga tao kapag alam nila kung anong information ang kailangan nila,” said Julian Tanaka, head of USC’s gender committee and councilor of USC.

And of course, there’s the issue of fluctuating supply of ARVs in the country, an issue denied by the DOH several times.

“Ang ARV supplies natin ay wala naman talagang problema. Nagkaroon lang tayo ng abnormal situation because nagkaroon lang ng miscalculations in ordering. Pero hindi nagkaroon ng shortage dahil walang pambili or walang budget. There’s no need to cause unnecessary panic among PLHIV,” Dr. Rosanna Ditangco, research chief at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine-AIDS Research Group (RITM-ARG, one of the treatment hubs in the country), explained.

At the grassroots, though, this is not what’s coming across.

“The PLHIV community has been panicking for the past three months now. The DOH has not been that transparent with its programs when it comes to antiretroviral medicines. The Project Red Ribbon itself has already purchased ARVs to support the community, so if there’s no problem, why is it that we are buying from other countries to supplement the problems with the stocks?” Pozzie Pinoy stressed in dismay.

Specifically, Project Red Ribbon purchased four boxes of Lamivudine and Tenofovir, a two-in-one mix of the two drugs.

“We were able to release it from the Customs in just one week. So it’s easy to purchase from other countries as opposed to what other people are saying that it’s hard to release it from customs,” Pozzie Pinoy added.

And so the questions remain unanswered:
Are the efforts of the government, especially the DOH, enough to cover the needs of PLHIV?
Are they doing what they are supposed to be doing to control the spread of the virus?
Are they really all talk, with no tangible outputs?
And are they even listening to PLHIV to know what’s really lacking in their existing efforts?

“The DOH should be more transparent about what’s really happening and with their programs. And they should have a continuous dialogue with the PLHIV community before they embark on something drastic that will affect PLHIV significant,” Pozzie Pinoy said.

The IACM event ended with all the attendees gathering around the huge red ribbon cloth while they hold the commemorative candles and as they recite their pledges for the PLHIV community. It was a moment to be remembered, when members of different organizations gathered together to remember those who passed on. But it was also a reminder to everyone that there is still so much more that needs to be done.

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(Outrage Magazine remains the only publication for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the Philippines.)

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Quezon City holds a different kind of santacruzan

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VERA Files and Yahoo Philippines | 24 May 2014

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A different kind of santacruzan was held recently in Quezon City. It was different not only because the participants were transgenders from different organizations from all over the country but also because it had the full support of the local government.

Called the trans-santacruzan (transgender santacruzan), the May 18 event was held in celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT). Aside from the annual Pride celebration held every June, IDAHOT is another important event that the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning) community throughout the world celebrates every year.

“The theme of IDAHOT this year, coinciding with the international celebration, is ‘freedom of expression in all public areas’. We would like to show everyone that [we] trans people should be respected in terms of how we express ourselves in public places. We want to highlight LGBT rights and gender equality,” Dindi Tan, board member of the Association of Transgender People (ATP) in the Philippines and organizer of the trans-santacruzan, said.

Santacruzan5“The Q.C. government helped the LGBTQ community to make this event possible,” Tan added. “Without its help, we wouldn’t be able to mount this kind of event. Vice Mayor Joy Belmonte was also an integral part of this. She has expressed her advocacy and support for the LGBTQ community through her efforts.”

IDAHOT commemorates the World Health Organization’s (WHO) action removing homosexuality from the list of psychological diseases. It was the outcome of a long-fought battle by LGBTQs.

The trans-santacruzan was participated in by several LGBT organizations, including Alcaraz Beauties, Bellissimo Filipinas, Bermudez Beauties, Betera’s Powerhouse of Beauties, Deaf Rainbow Philippines, GANDA (Gender and Development Advocates) Filipinas, LGBT Pinoy, Miss Gay Philippines Winners, Sytangco Beauties, TAO (Transpinay of Antipolo Organization), TransDeaf Philippines, and Trippers Philippines-TWC.

“It was the first time the transwoman and transman communities were together for an event. We, [members of] TransMan Pilipinas, would like to show everyone that we exist, and that we are not lesbians,” Nil Orera Nodalo of TransMan Pilipinas (TMP) explained.

Another main feature of the event was the participation of US-based Filipino transgender model, Geena Rocero. She came to Manila to attend the event and to meet members of local LGBTQ organizations.

“This is a historic moment, for the first time we’re all together fighting for our rights. I’m happy to be here with my friends and everyone who joined this parade,” Rocero said. “I think organizations like ATP and TMP are doing an amazing work. People now are more aware of what we need.”

Santracruzan4Rocero first gained public attention when she came out as a transgender during TED Talks’ annual conference last March. Her video, a monologue about her life and the struggle she experienced during the years she hid her true sexuality, gained more than a million views.

During the IDAHOT celebration, Rocero gave another inspirational speech on the importance of fighting for one’s right.

“We all have to stick together. I think one of the basic rights that we all have is to fight together to advocate for our name and gender recognition… without being forced to undergo surgeries. We all have to come together as a community so we can succeed,” she said.

The trans-santacruzan did not only showcase the diversity of the transgender community, but also imparted a very important message to the public.

“It is very relevant to celebrate IDAHOT because… [many are] not familiar with the transgender concept in the Philippines. And we, [members of] the transgender community, are affected by that. Most people in our society don’t really understand what homophobia and transphobia really mean,” Kate Montecarlo Cordova, founder of the Association of Transgender People in the Philippines, stressed.

Although Quezon City has made many efforts to improve the welfare of the LGBTQ community, still majority of local governments are still unaware of the struggles LGBTQs are experiencing.

“The government is not doing what it is supposed to be doing in terms of alleviating discrimination against us. In the first place, how can it do it if it is not completely aware of us? That’s why, we in the transgender movement, want to be visible in the society. We are very visible and yet invisible when it comes to health, rights, and in many other sectors,” Cordova pointed out.

“It’s about time that we assert our rights,” she added. “The whole concept of this [santacruzan] event is that we are free in sending a message to the world that we can be ourselves, regardless of our sexual orientation, gender identity and expression – and we have the freedom to do that.”

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(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”

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‘Trans-Santacruzan’ celebrates IDAHOT in Phl

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Outrage Magazine | 21 May 2014

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The first-of-its-kind parade of beauties happened in the Philippines when the Association of Transgender People in the Philippines (ATP) and TransMan Pilipinas (TMP) mounted “Trans-Santacruzan” recently in Quezon City. Santacruzan is traditionally held in the month of May to express the Marian devotion of Christians in the Philippines, with this version adding the call for acceptance of LGBTQ people. The event also marked the annual celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT), held every 17th of May to mark the date when the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of diseases.

The event was not the first Santacruzan to feature transgender people, but it was the first trans-led such gathering.

The purpose of this event is to highlight LGBT rights and gender equality. The theme for this year, coinciding with the international celebration, is ‘Freedom of expression in all public spaces’,” ATP’s Dindi Tan said.  “We would like to show people that trans people should be respected in terms of how we express ourselves in public spaces.”

Several transgender and LGBT organizations from all over the country participated in the event, including: Alcaraz Beauties, Bellissimo Filipinas, Bermudez Beauties, Betera’s Powerhouse of Beauties, Pinoy Deaf Rainbow, TransDeaf Philippines, GANDA (Gender and Development Advocates) Filipinas, LGBT Pinoy, Miss Gay Philippines winners, Sytangco Beauties, Transpinay of Antipolo Organization, and Trippers Philippines-TWC.

For Shane Madigal, president of TAO, participation in the gathering was a show of solid support.  “In our city, in Antipolo, the local government is giving enough support to transpinays, not just in our organization. It’s a big impact that we are now being recognized and that there were a lot of changes that have been happening. I hope that other local government units (LGUs) would mirror the practices in Antipolo and in Quezon City when it comes to promoting LGBT rights.”

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The Trans-Santacruzan passed by parts of the Elliptical Road, and the stretch of Philcoa before it concluded in the Quezon Memorial Circle. Although the parade wasn’t that organized in terms of marshalling the participants, particularly as they neared Philcoa, the message that called for equality was delivered loud and clear as they walked along the busy highway.

This is a historic moment, for the first time we’re all together fighting for our rights. I’m happy to be here with my friends and everyone who joined this parade,” Filipino transgender model Geena Rocero, who joined the event, said. “I think organizations like ATP and TMP are doing an amazing work but we need to start a conversation, and that’s how we start. People now are more aware of what we need, and that’s why we’re here.”

timthumb-3Rocero, who is based in the US, came out as a transgender during TED Talks’ annual conference last March. She now devotes most of her time in joining LGBTQ-related activities, particularly those that promote transgender rights. She arrived in the Philippines last May 17 to participate in the IDAHOT 2014 celebration in the Philippines, and to meet with LGBTQ organizations to “inspire them to continue fighting for equal rights”.

We all have to stick together. I think… that we all have to fight together, and to advocate for our name and gender recognition, that would allow us to change our name and gender marker in our documents without being forced to undergo surgeries. I think we all have to come together as a community so we can succeed,” Rocero added.

If anything, the Trans-Santacruzan was another landmark for the LGBTQ community in the Philippines for getting the attention of the spectators, thereby awakening the senses of the haters, for them to accept and treat equally members of the LGBTQ community.

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(Outrage Magazine remains the only publication for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the Philippines.)

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Once there was a princess in Puerto Galera

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Outrage Magazine | 14 May 2014

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Once-there-was-a-swan-princess

She lives on an island, a place considered by many, as the gay mecca of the Philippines. She’s already nearing her 40s, but – as she says so herself – she doesn’t look her age.  She’s currently single, working as a waitress in Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro.  She says that, at first glance, many tell her that she is a dead-ringer of Dolly Anne Carvajal, the daughter of the late popular celebrity reporter Inday Badiday. And while she lives her life as a transgender woman, she still often refers to herself as bakla (gay).

Her name is Joy Sucao.

Sanay na ako na mapagkamalan na babae. Halos araw-araw, lahat ng kumakain dito, akala talaga nila totoong babae ako (Most people think I’m a ‘real’ woman. Almost every day, for people who dine here, they tell me they thought I’m a ‘real’ woman),” Joy said.

She has been living in Puerto Galera for almost 13 years now. Her family, on the other hand, resides in Bicol.

But then there are some locals on the island, while passing by the restaurant, who tease her as “mukhang kabayo (looks like a horse)”. She just waves at them, and then carries on with her work.

She may not be the “pinakamaganda bakla dito sa Puerto Galerapero masasabi kong akoang pinakamaganda sa kanilang lahat kapag may jowa ako (most beautiful gay person in Puerto Galera, but I can say I am the most beautiful when I have someone who loves me),” Joy said.

She then recalled two of her “greatest relationships”, chatting while taking the orders of the group of gay men who just arrived at the restaurant.

May nakarelasyon ako na American.  Six years kami nagsama.  Isa siya sa mga rason kung bakit ako nandito sa Puerto Galera (I used to have a relationship with an American. We were together for six years. He is one of the reasons why I ended up in Puerto Galera),” she said.

She received an allowance from the American; she saved some of it, sent some to her family in Bicol, and used most of it for her hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

During the course of their relationship, Joy felt like she was the most beautiful transgender in the island. “Pinagtitinginan kami kapag magkasama kami. Syempre puti siya, maraming nagwapuhan sa kanya. Ang swerte ko daw (People stare at us when we’re together. Of course, he was Caucasian, and many found him attractive. They all told me I was very lucky).”

Sadly, their relationship didn’t last.

Joy stayed in Puerto Galera to work.

Hindi ko masyado dinamdam ‘yung paghihiwalay namin. Kung magpapakadepress ako dahil sa paghihiwalay namin, wala mangyayari sa buhay ko (I tried not to think too much about our break-up. If I wallow in depression because we parted ways, nothing good will happen in my life),” she said.

It was not only the American who changed Joy’s life.

Because after then she met this Cebuano, who helped her change the way she sees herself forever.

They were together for five years. The relationship was magical, according to her. It was a dream come true for Joy.  They shared their dreams and plans together. The Cebuano even rented their own apartment so they can live on their own.

Akala ko noon siya na talagaPero hindi rin pala (I really thought it would be us forever. But it wasn’t meant to be).”

There came a time when the Cebuano had to go abroad to find a better paying job so he can help his family. They eventually parted ways.

Although her relationships didn’t last a lifetime, Joy considers all the events that happened to her as life lessons.

Relasyon langyan.  Oo, malaking parte ng buhay ‘yan, pero dapat mas matutunan mo maging masaya sa kung ano ang mayroon ka, at dapat mo matutunan na mahalin muna ang sarili mo (Those are only relationships.  Yes, they are big parts of your life, bu you have to learn how to be happy with what you have, and you need to learn to love yourself first),” she explained.

And so Joy said that she may not be the most beautiful nor the most feminine-looking transgender on the island, but she manages to get what she wants and she’s satisfied with it.

Some locals may call her “Petrang kabayo” or “ugly duckling”, but Joy may well be a “swan princess”.  “Kahit sabihin nilang ‘di ako maganda, masaya pa rin ako sa buhay ko, kahit minsan (Even if people see me as beautiful, I’ve experienced real happiness, even for short periods of time).”

Because behind Joy’s smiles and engaging personality, hides a contentment – something she earned and continues to learn, as she lives her life in the beautiful island of Puerto Galera, one day at a time.

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(Outrage Magazine remains the only publication for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the Philippines.)

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DOH: HIV virus infects 16 Filipinos every day

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VERA Files and Yahoo Philippines | 10 May 2014

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HIV-on-the-riseCases of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection continue to rise in the Philippines.

Data from Department of Health (DOH) shows that HIV is now infecting 16 Filipinos every day, up from last year’s average of seven new patients daily.

Latest DOH data showed that 498 new cases were reported in March this year — the highest recorded in a month since the DOH started tracking HIV cases in the country in 1984.

Of this number, 380 involved MSMs (men who have sex with men); 54 were contracted because of drug use (through injecting); 63 were OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) who had unprotected sex; and one case of mother-to-child transmission.

Since January this year, 1,432 HIV cases have been recorded, 146 of which developed into full-blown AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) and 434 resulted in death.

The DOH also listed the most prevalent areas in the Philippines where new HIV cases were reported: the National Capital Region, Central Luzon, Southern Luzon, Cebu and Davao.

Assistant Health Secretary Eric Tayag said that the DOH is working closely with local governments to help address the problem. He added that the numbers may continue to rise in the coming months since not all persons at risk “are responsible enough” to get themselves tested and that based on their projections, there are still many undetected cases.

“We have continuously informed the public about this, and we are also reminding everyone that they need to be extra careful and conscious about their health,” Tayag said. “We are also appealing to those who are at risk to get themselves tested immediately.”

Those who get infected with the HIV virus remain asymptomatic up to 10 years. They will only have flu-like symptoms which would later disappear.

If an infected person continues to practice a reckless and unhealthy lifestyle, it won’t be long before the virus matures into AIDS and complications would start to manifest. It would be harder for this patient to recover and respond to medications.

The Philippines is currently using the traditional confirmatory test, called the Western blot, to detect if the HIV virus is present in the blood.

If the initial blood test (which is normally done in a hospital or laboratory) turns positive, the result will then be forwarded to the DOH for confirmatory tests. It normally takes 15 to 30 days before the DOH releases its findings and confirmations.

Health Secretary Enrique Ona said the department is exploring the possibility of making the process faster by making rapid HIV test kits available.

“The only problem we see with this rapid testing is that anyone can have it, just like the pregnancy test kits,” Tayag said. “We won’t be able to properly monitor the numbers. The people who will buy these kits will not be counselled by peer educators before they take tests, just like what the hospitals are doing and HIV/AIDS counselling is essential so you’ll know what to do.”

DOH-Assistant-Secretary-Eric-TayagAlthough in recent months the number of people who voluntarily took the test has increased, there is still a great number of people at risk who are not making the effort to know what their status is.

“Secretary Ona would want to shift from voluntary testing to something that’s compulsory,” Tayag said. “We’re working out the details and how this is possible. We want health providers to screen adults who may have a risk for HIV so that they can be properly counselled on what to do next.”

He continued: “In the Philippines, HIV testing is not done like how they’re doing it in other countries. Only some get themselves tested. The only way it can be done is when it is being offered, especially to people who are at risk.”

PLWHAs (persons living with HIV and AIDS) are currently protected by Republic Act 8504, or the Philippines AIDS Prevention and Control Act. All government agencies, medical institutions and individuals are mandated to keep all information regarding PLWHAs confidential. A person or institution found violating this law faces penalties that include imprisonment from two months to four years, and revocation of their licenses and permits.

There is still no permanent cure for HIV and AIDS, but there are ARVs (antiretroviral drugs) available to help slow down the growth and spread of the virus.

The Philippine government is providing free access to ARVs to PLWHAs. PhilHealth allots P30,000 per year for its PLWHA members to cover diagnostics, medications and other hospital needs.

“Some people may think that it’s [sort of] okay to have HIV since the government is giving free medications and that these medications will prolong their lives,” Tayag observed. “Don’t ever think that because for these medications to work, you have to religiously take them for life… all of these have side effects if you do not adhere to the correct ways of how to take them.”

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(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”

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DOH eyes to make HIV testing mandatory

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Outrage Magazine | 07 May 2014

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Confronting-HIV

As the Department of Health (DOH) issued the latest data on the number of HIV and AIDS cases in the Philippines, DOH Assistant Sec. Eric Tayag said in an interview by ANC that the government agency is working out details for making HIV tests compulsory.

This is because although, in recent months the number of people who have been responsibly taking the test to know their status have increased, there reportedly remains a great number of people at risk who are not making the effort to know their status.

“(DOH Sec. Enrique) Ona would want to shift from voluntary testing to something that’s compulsory. We’re working out the details, how this is possible, and all. We want health providers to screen adults who may have a risk for HIV, so that they can be properly counseled on what to do next,” Tayag said.

As per DOH data, in March 2014, there were 498 new HIV cases recorded, a 35% rise from the same month last year.  Specifically, 381 of the 498 cases were men who have sex with men (MSM), 54 were because of drug use (through injecting), 63 were overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who had unprotected sexual relations, and one case was from a mother-to-child transmission. Since January 2014, there were already 1,432 cases that have been recorded; 146 of which developed to full blown AIDS, and 434 resulted in death.

“We have been reminding everyone since last year to be more careful and conscious about their health. It won’t be long until we reach the all-time high of 500 new cases,” Tayag said. “We’re also appealing to those who are at risk to get themselves tested, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

He added that the numbers may continue to rise in the coming months, since not everyone at risk are that “responsible enough” to get themselves tested.  Also, based on their projections, “there are still many who are still undetected.”

WHAT THE LAW SAYS

Making HIV testing compulsory is actually a violation of the existing law concerning HIV and AIDS in the Philippines.

Section 3: Declaration of Policies of the Republic Act No. 8504 (or “Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998″) specifically states that “compulsory HIV testing shall be considered unlawful”.

In a statement, the Network to Stop AIDS (NSAP) lambasted the DOH proposal to enforce mandatory HIV testing, saying that it “demonstrates that among those involved in addressing the HIV epidemic in the Philippines, the health agency is by far the most backward and the most out-of-tune.”

Added NSAP: “The current legal framework allows for various modes of HIV testing, but they have to be voluntary and confidential. This is clearly rights-based, but this is also premised on existing evidence that coercive modes of HIV testing actually result in a decrease in the coverage of testing – those who need to get tested fear discrimination and abuse, so they hide underground once authorities require HIV testing. This fear is not unfounded, as HIV-related stigma and discrimination remain unaddressed in the Philippines. Imposing compulsory testing is operationally problematic (also unnecessarily costly) and it encourages human rights abuses.”

This was seconded by Michael David C. Tan, editor of Outrage Magazine, the only lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) publication in the Philippines, which also conducts HIV-related projects.  He stated that forcing people to get tested will not deal with the spread of HIV, and could – in fact – only worsen the situation. “‘Witch hunt’ easily comes to mind,” he said, “particularly since the idea of having compulsory testing will specifically target populations that are deemed at higher risk for HIV infection. By saying ‘compulsory’, we actually only aim at making specific groups of people get tested; as such, we’re abetting in the unnecessary stigmatization of members of these groups.”

Members of the LGBTQ community (particularly men who have sex with men, including gay and bisexual men), overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), and those working in the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry should be wary, said Tan, because they are “only some of the people who have been stigmatized to be at higher risk for HIV infection at certain points in time.  Their plights could only worsen with making HIV testing mandatory.”

NSAP also added: “Even DOH possesses evidence that show the complexity of Filipino sexual behavior. In a concentrated epidemic among MSM and transgenders, who do you actually require to get tested? This population does not conveniently fit whatever stereotypical images that Sec. Ona may have about the community. By definition, this sexual behavior includes any man who engaged or engages in sexual acts with other men – the heterosexual partners of transgender people; those who do not consider themselves as gay but engages in sex with other men; even the heterosexual ex-congressman whose life story was featured in a TV show a few years ago where he admitted to engage in transactional sex with a ‘bakla to support his schooling. Would DOH require all of them to get tested? The agency is also in possession of data that shows that a significant portion of men who have sex with men and transgender people have female sexual partners – would they be required to get tested, too?”

BETTER RESPONSES

Tan believes that the current responses of the government remains lacking, which – in turn – affects the continuing fear of HIV.

“In (HIV) advocacy, we say that no one should die from HIV anymore at this time and age because treatment is available, and the disease can already be managed,” he said.  “But working at the grassroots, among HIV-related issues we’ve come across include the shortage of the antiretroviral (ARV) medicines in the Philippines, employment-related discrimination encountered by people living with HIV (PLHIV), and cases when PLHIV are kicked out of their homes after family members find out their HIV-positive status. You can’t even ensure that PLHIV live just as good a life as non-reactive people, and you expect them not to be fearful?”

Tan added that “if services are bettered, then no forcing needs to be done.  HIV, after all, is not just a health concern, but a complex social issue.  Deal with the connecting issues, too. That’s the only way for people to know for sure that there is nothing to fear.”

The DOH is supposedly also exploring the possibility of making the testing process faster by acquiring rapid HIV test kits.

“The only problem we see with this rapid testing is that anyone can have it, just like the pregnancy test kits in the drug stores, (and) we cannot properly monitor the numbers. The people who will buy these kits will not be counseled by peer educators before they take tests, just like what the hospitals are doing, and HIV/AIDS counseling is essential so you’ll know what to do,” Tayag said.

He added that “in the Philippines, HIV testing is not done like how they’re doing it in other countries, (so) only few people get themselves tested. The only way it can be done is when it is being offered, especially to people who are at risk. But if the person still refuses to take the test after it was offered, it will not be forced to them.”

Tayag said that the DOH is already working with local governments to address high HIV cases in several areas in the Philippines, including in the National Capital Region, Southern Luzon, Central Luzon, Cebu, and Davao, to double their efforts to lessen the continuous growth of the people who get infected.

“The only sure way to protect yourself from getting HIV is abstinence, but who can really abstain for so long? So the next effective way to protect yourself is to use condoms. Sec. Ona wants to push for more efforts when it comes to HIV, and we have to do our part so we can ensure the success of the plans,” Tayag said.

WORK TOGETHER

For NSAP, there are alternatives to compulsory testing, including community-led HIV testing. In fact, in the last years, collaboration between community groups and government-run HIV testing facilities has intensified, accounting for the increase in the uptake on HIV testing.

“A recently conducted review by international and local HIV experts of existing HIV interventions being implemented in the Philippines has cited this model as an effective approach in a concentrated epidemic. Incidentally, the same review, which was already accepted by the Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC) that Sec. Ona himself chairs, has already warned authorities against coercive HIV measures, including mandatory testing,” NSAP stated.  “Yet Sec. Ona seems to be blind to what the situation is, what the evidence says, and what needs to be done. It’s not a question of knowledge or awareness – he has had several interactions and dialogues with community groups where various issues were discussed, from stigma to gaps in testing and other services. But he refuses to listen.”

Outrage Magazine‘s Tan calls for the government to “focus, really focus on your services – what you should be doing to better what are currently being offered,” Tan said. “Because the continuing worsening situation only highlights that the existing efforts are currently wanting.  We need long-term human rights-based solutions to a huge problem that will just continue to worsen right under our noses if we continue having only knee-jerk reactions.”

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(Outrage Magazine remains the only publication for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the Philippines.)

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