Suspension of Disbelief

Posts Tagged ‘AIDS Philippines

PhilHealth benefit package for people with HIV under review

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VERA Files | 01 December 2015

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PhilHealth HIV - ARV Bottles

ARV Bottles

As the country commemorates World AIDS Day today (December 1), the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) is set to begin a formal review of its benefit package for people living with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), or PLHIVs.

“We are currently reviewing the Outpatient HIV/AIDS Treatment (OHAT) Package, the implementation of it in treatment hubs, and the current rates, and if patients have questions, we can discuss it with them.  PhilHealth is going to conduct a formal review of benefits, this year up to next year, to address these issues,” Dr. Mary Antoinette Remonte, Medical Specialist II and Millennium Development Goals Benefit Products Team Head of PhilHealth, said.

PLHIVs in the country, who are members of PhilHealth, are entitled to several benefits under the OHAT Package. Every year, a member is entitled to P30,000, or P7,500 every quarter, worth of treatment, care and support (TCS) services from his chosen PhilHealth accredited treatment hub.

Also included in the OHAT Package are the following: drugs and medicines; laboratory examinations based on the specific treatment guideline, including Cluster of Differentiation 4 (CD4) level determination test, viral load (if warranted), test for monitoring antiretroviral (ARV) drug toxicity; and professional fees of providers.

Hospitalization coverage from PhilHealth ranges from P11,000-20,000, depending on the case. Any amount that will exceed the allotted budget will be charged to the patient.

DOH National Epidemiology Center

DOH National Epidemiology Center

However, PhilHealth has received  reports from several PLHIVs that the TCS services they get from their treatment hubs are different compared to other TCS providers.

“It has come to our attention that some treatment hubs charge for some laboratory tests, even after the release of the OHAT Package circular. Also, according to the guidelines set by the DOH (Department of Health), viral load testing is also covered by the OHAT Package,” Dr. Remonte said.

In the case of Paolo (not his real name), a person living with HIV  (PLHIV) from Manila who is receiving HIV TCS at San Lazaro Hospital, he was made to pay for the viral load test even if he is a PhilHealth member.

Sadly, if you are a PHLIV who had been charged for a particular TCS service, that is supposedly covered by the OHAT Package, “you cannot be reimbursed for what you spent, because the reimbursement goes directly to the facility. This is why it is important for a facility to properly maximize the reimbursement claims so they can help the patients,” Dr. Remonte added.

But the practice in other treatment hubs, like in the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), is different. PLHIVs are able to receive free baseline laboratory tests and CD4 count.

“The OHAT Package does not cover baseline tests yet, but due to good financial management, we can provide them for free to new patients. And once they start their treatment, they would be eligible for OHAT,” Dr. Rosanna Ditangco, research chief head at RITM-ARG, explained.

For patients who are already starting their antiretroviral therapy, “we provide free CD4 and CBC tests. Yearly, during their anniversary, we provide free CD4, CBC, blood chemistry – depending on what ARV they are taking, and viral load. And if the doctor suspects treatment failure, a free viral load test will be done anytime plus HIV drug resistance testing,” Dr. Ditangco added.

That has been the system of RITM ever since PhilHealth released their OHAT Package circular.

“The HIV treatment regimen is standard for all treatment hubs, but the cost of laboratories are not the same. The practice is also different on how they utilize the PhilHealth reimbursement and this is because of administrative problems in the treatment hubs,” Dr. Remonte explained.

She also reminded PLHIVs to check if their treatment hubs were filing claims and if they find out that there were lapses, they could write a complaint, anonymously if they are worried about confidentiality.

For PLHIVs who want to avail of the benefits of the OHAT Package, they should be PhilHealth members with three to six months contributions; submit a waiver allowing PhilHealth to look in to their records; and provide a copy of their HIV confirmatory result and treatment regimen.

There are currently 22 accredited hospitals all over the country that are designated treatment hubs for PLHIVs. There are also several satellite clinics that provide TCS services for HIV management.

Like other agencies and institutions, PhilHealth is increasing its efforts to help manage the detrimental effects of HIV.

The Philippines is one of the countries where the prevalence of HIV has been increasing.

On the other hand, statistics from other countries show that HIV is already decreasing, or at zero growth.

As of August this year, there were already more than 5,000 reported HIV cases in the Philippines, according to the DOH. This number is 17% higher compared to the same period last 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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Once there was a poz trans advocate

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Outrage Magazine | 21 October 2014

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This is part of “More than a Number”, which Outrage Magazine launched on March 1, 2013 to give a human face to those infected and affected by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the Philippines, what it considers as “an attempt to tell the stories of those whose lives have been touched by HIV and AIDS”. More information about (or – for that matter – to be included in) “More than a Number”, email editor@outragemag.com, or call (+63) 9287854244 and (+63) 9157972229.

Dani

PHOTO BY RED CASTRO PHOTOGRAPHY, COURTESY OF DANI

Her story is not unique. Her journey has been explored by many individuals who are also in the same situation. But what she does, and how she uses her “gift”, is what makes her exceptional.

Her name is Dani*. She is a transgender woman, a pageant queen, and an advocate of HIV awareness and rights.

“When I was a child, I didn’t know what bakla meant. That is, until I was being called one. I asked my parents what bakla means and it was only then that I got the concept of being homosexual,” Dani recalled.

It was when she was growing up that she slowly realized that she’s “a woman trapped in a man’s body.” And from then on, “I identified myself as a transwoman.”

She lived her life as a woman, and – stereotypical as it may sound – she is into joining beauty pageants (she has, in fact, won several titles).

Dani would like to think she’s also like many “traditional women” who, when love knocks on the door, give everything unconditionally and oh-so-selflessly. One time, in particular, when she fell in love, she surrendered everything to her ex-partner, even the safeness of her physical health.  They practiced unprotected sex.

“I remember before 2009, I thought HIV was not yet in our country. I thought at that time that it was only happening in the US and in other countries, so why should I worry? Why should I use condoms?” she recalled.

But life took a sudden turn.

“I am now HIV positive. I was diagnosed back in 2009,” Dani disclosed.

Since then, she has started learning about HIV and AIDS. She attended seminars, and she was present in almost all of the counseling sessions at her treatment hub. She became friends with different people living with HIV (PLHIVs) and advocates. And she did all these as she pulled through her life.

When she finally gathered her confidence and strength back, she used her knowledge and experience to inspire newly diagnosed HIV-positive people to slowly recover from their misery and help them face their new lives.

“This advocacy is very close to my heart. I know what PLHIVs are going through because I speak from experience. I consider my status as an open secret – what I’m doing, that is helping PLHIVs, is a good medium for me to discuss what I went through and how I’m dealing with it,” she said.

As an HIV awareness and rights advocate, Dani is in a class of her own. She selflessly takes advantage of her own story to help other people.

When The Project Red Ribbon was established, Dani found a community of HIV positive advocates who also shared the same way of thinking: to help PLHIVs through the power of inspiration and real stories.

“We help them get through the saddest days of their lives– how they can get along with it, what they can do to have a better mindset about their situation. They need to become more aware that this is their new life already, and that there’s much to be considered,” she said.

Dani still joins beauty pageants and she still wins different titles.  She still hangs-out with her transgender friends. And she still falls in love whenever she meets someone special.  But this time, she values her own welfare and the safety of other people.

“Sometimes, someone will call me in the middle of the night, crying and sometimes suicidal. I gladly receive the call and just listen to their frustrations and fear. I feel responsible for them. Because I know how they feel – the feeling of being alone. I don’t want other people to feel like there’s no hope,” she said.

Being a transgender and HIV positive can be extra challenging (Read about Dabawenya Tricia Cabrera). But Dani’s spirit remains high.

“The essence of being a transgender is having the best of both worlds (so to speak). You can have a caring heart of a woman and you can have an iron fist of man,” Dani said.  “And being HIV positive, you have to accept and fully understand your new life so you can also inspire new PLHIVs. And living an HIV positive life is not easy nor difficult, but it is manageable.”

*NAME CHANGED, AS REQUESTED, TO PROTECT THE INTERVIEWEE’S PRIVACY

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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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Problems abound in implementation of PWD benefits

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VERA Files and Yahoo Philippines | 06 September 2014

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LGBT community remembers those who died of HIV

LGBT community remembers those who died of AIDS

“Denver” (not his real name) is HIV-positive. He has been an outpatient at one of the HIV/AIDS treatment hubs in Manila for seven years already. And he just learned recently that he can avail some benefits and privileges from the government.

“I cannot blame them for not orienting us, the patients, that we can apply for a PWD ID, because they’re attending to a lot of patients already. We just hope that our government improves the dissemination of important information to the public,” Denver said.

Problems like that of Denver have been encountered by sick people whose disabilities are not physically obvious. It’s not just inadequacy in information dissemination but more on the issue of what is “chronic illness.”

Republic Act 7277, the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons defines Disabled Persons as those “suffering from restriction or different abilities as a result of a mental, physical, or sensory impairment, to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.”

R.A. 7277 was amended by Republic Act 9422 granting additional privileges and incentive to Persons with Disabilities (PWD).

It states that “Identification Cards shall be issued to any bonafide PWD with permanent disabilities due to any one or more of the following conditions: psychosocial, chronic illness, learning, mental, visual, and orthopedic, speech and hearing conditions.”

Chronic means a condition or disease that is persistent or otherwise long-lasting in its effects. HIV is one example of chronic illness which also includes asthma, diabetes, cancer lupus, and many more.

Problems arose when many persons suffering from a chronic disease but did not look physically ill were denied discounts by drugstores and other establishments.

Denver, in fact, said when heard some of his fellow PLHIVs (people living with HIV) tried to inquire and request for necessary papers needed for the PWD ID application, one attending nurse remarked, “hindi naman talaga kayo PWD, mas marami pang ibang nakaadmit dito na mas kailangan ng PWD membership.

In a Nov. 22, 2011 memo to a City Social Welfare Office in Alabang, Social Welfare Undersecretary Alicia R. Bala laid down the policy on 20 percent discount for persons with “chronic illness.”

Bala said, “It should be disability resulting from chronic illness that should be included in the ID.”

“For persons with skin allergy or asthma, although it is under chronic illness yet it is not included as disability whereas for diabetic person, if such illness results to a partial or total blindness, then a person can be considered PWDs because it affects his/her vision,” Bala further said.

Paz, a 40-year-old PWD who’s currently dealing with scoliosis, also expressed her frustration towards the government for not having enough facilities to accommodate them.

“People line up for hours to catch the MRT, taxi stands, and in bus stops, I don’t understand why the government is not doing anything for us,” she complained.

Carmen Reyes Zubiaga, director of the National Council on Disability Affairs

Carmen Reyes Zubiaga, director of the National Council on Disability Affairs

Carmen Reyes Zubiaga, director of the National Council on Disability Affairs, said “the LRT and MRT are implementing a special coach for PWDs, senior citizens, and pregnant women – they have to be in the priority lane. All they have to do is to show their PWD IDs.”

The Accessibility Law or the Batas Pambansa Blg. 344 mandates certain buildings, institutions, establishments, and public utilities to install facilities and other devices that can help accommodate PWDs.

“Although some institutions and establishment have implemented the necessary changes for PWDs, it’s [still] very sad to say that after more than 30 years of being a law, it’s only now that government agencies and even the private entities are really cramming to catch up with the implementation of the Accessibility Law,” Zubiaga said.

Penalty for violation or none implementation of the Accessibility Law provisions includes imprisonment of not less than one month but not more than one year, or a fine of P2,000 to P5,000, or both.

“Even though we have a law that protects us, it’s very vague in terms of penalties and sanctions for those who do not comply. We are now coming up with amendments to it. We are now developing the National Comprehensive Accessibility Law, which does not only cover physical environment, but also information and communication technology that will cater to our blind and deaf members,” Zubiaga said.

Despite the setbacks, Zubiaga is still positive because Filipino PWDs are becoming more aware of their rights and are asserting for their implementation. “We also educate the parents, so they can instill in their children with disabilities that like any other children, they have the same set of rights.”

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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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State of the Nation: The Grievances of PLHIVs

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Outrage Magazine | 22 July 2014

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WAD2013

“It is clear: The state was established to serve you. If you have health problems, the government must care for you. In times of illness, it should be there to give aid and support. What has our government done in this regard?”

That was the question posed by President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III himself during his fourth State of the Nation Address last year.

And this year, four years since Filipinos were led to the daang matuwid (righteous/right path)”, the commitment made by PNoy to Filipinos – that there will be a better tomorrow – seems to be untenable.  In fact, there seems to be no decent stopovers along the way, only obstacles.

The plight of Filipino people living with HIV (PLHIVs) exemplify this.

‘WITCH HUNT’

In an earlier interview on ABS-CBN News Channel, Department of Health (DOH) assistant secretary Eric Tayag said that the government agency is working on the details to make HIV tests compulsory.

“(DOH) Sec. Enrique Ona would want to shift from voluntary testing to something that’s compulsory. 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 was quoted as saying.

While the DOH blindly considers this move to be beneficial to everyone, especially to those who are “unaware and reckless with their lifestyle”, different HIV-related organizations and support groups believe otherwise.

“We were surprised and very alarmed by the pronouncement of the DOH. We feel that the mandatory testing, other than being very violative of the AIDS law, will also violate fundamental human rights. If HIV testing would be required for employment or upon entry to educational institutions, then that’s a violation of the socio-economic and socio-cultural rights. It will promote greater stigma and discrimination,” Perci Cedaña, National Youth Commission’s commissioner-at-large, said.

The DOH also noted that the prevalence of HIV among men who have sex with men (MSM) is really alarming and it shouldn’t be taken lightly.

What the DOH leadership fails to see is the diversity of the LGBTQ community, whose members don’t follow the stereotyped images that the media or the everyday Filipino perceive.

“Even (if) DOH possesses evidence that show the complexity of Filipino 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 (LGBTQ) community. Would DOH require all of them to get tested? The problem is not simply about increasing uptake of HIV testing. There’s a more fundamental issue: it’s Sec. Ona himself,” Network to Stop AIDS (NSAP) said in a statement.

Project Red Ribbon, an organization that composes mainly of PLHIV, noted that typecasting a certain group will not solve the growing problem of HIV in the country.

“It’s basically a witch hunt, and different organizations and institutions, especially BPOs, will be affected by this. (We are) so against this because it’s basically typcasting a certain group. The problem is, when you say MSM, not all MSM are gay. So does this mean that they will only focus with this group? What about the other groups? This is a clear typecasting of MSM. We don’t think it’s going to work,” said Pozzie Pinoy, founder of the Project Red Ribbon.

DISAPPOINTMENTS

While the government is “trying” to decrease the prevalence of HIV infection in the country, the quality of service and professionalism among medical practitioners in some health centers and treatment hubs continue to be lacking.

One PLHIV, RT, found out that he’s HIV-positive while he was finishing the requirements needed for a job application in Dubai.

“When I went back to the clinic in Malate to get my confirmatory test, the nurses and medical technicians who were on duty immediately went to the reception area to take a good look at me and they whispered to each other,” he recalled.

And what the attending physician told RT was even more alarming. “Okay lang ‘yan, matagal pa naman ang 10 years. Mga five years pa bago mo maramdaman na may AIDS ka. Marami ka pa naman pwedeng magawa (That’s okay; you still have 10 years. It will take five years before you start feeling the effects of having AIDS. You can still do a lot ’til then).” After hearing that, he just left the clinic.

Several days later, he consulted with another doctor in San Lazaro Hospital.

It has been three years since that incident.

RT is now taking antiretroviral medicines (ARV) to help control the growth and spread of the HIV virus in his body. His doctor told him that he’s in superb shape – he goes to the gym every other day and he hasn’t experienced any opportunistic infections.

Despite the unfortunate initial experience, RT is still “luckier” than most PLHIVs.

In the case of Paolo (not his real name), a 22-year-old barista who is also HIV-positive, the available resources in the Visayas region to attend to the needs of PLHIVs is insufficient, if not lacking.

Mahirap ang kalagayan ng mga may HIV dito sa Visayas. Minsan nangyayari na hindi kami naasikaso kasi hindi available ‘yung doktor namin. Kaya ‘yung iba sa aminnagbibyahe pa papuntang Cebu para macheck-up at makakuha ng ARV (Our status in the Visayas is difficult. At times, no one looks after us because there’s no doctor available. So, some of us have to travel to Cebu just to get checked, as well as to get ARV supplies),” he said.

As a minimum wage earner, Paolo cannot afford to skip work just so he can go to Cebu.

Naalala ko five or six months ago, nagkalagnat ako for three weeks, tapos noong nagpunta ako sa hospital namin ditonakaleave daw ‘yung doktor na naka-assign sa amin, at pinapapunta ako sa Cebu para matignan. Sumabay pa noon, naubos na ‘yung supply ko ng ARV, kaya hindi rin ako nakainom ng gamot ng almost one month. Tapos nag-consult na lang ako sa general practitioner doctor, at sinabi ko ang status ko. Wala naman akong choice (I remember five or six months ago, I had a fever for three weeks, so I went to the hub here, but the doctor was on leave; I was told to go to Cebu for me to get checked. It was also that time that I ran out of ARVs, so I have not been able to take my medicines for a month. I was forced to consult with a general practitioner; I disclosed my status to him. It’s not like I had a choice),” he recalled.

UNNECESSARY PANIC?

Although Filipino PLHIV benefit from PhilHealth’s Outpatient HIV/AIDS Treatment Package, which covers the majority of their hospital and treatment expenses, there is also the growing problem that the government is facing in terms of ARV supplies.

“Actually, we don’t have a problem in ARV supplies. It just so happened that there was an abnormal situation. There was a miscalculation when they ordered the supply, that’s why there was a delay for a few months,” said Dr. Rossana Ditangco, research chief of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM).  “We experienced the shortage not because we didn’t have a budget, there was just a delay in the delivery. There’s no need to cause unnecessary panic towards this. As far as the budget is concerned, I don’t think we will experience any problem because the ARVs that we are buying are very cheap, they are just generics. And PhilHealth is there and ready to take over eventually for the cost of treatment.”

Supposedly pacifying words that don’t hold sway to so many PLHIVs.

In the case of JB, who lives in Quezon City, going to RITM Alabang to get ARV supplies is a tedious task, especially if he will only be given one to two weeks’ supply.

“I have been taking ARVs for more than four years now, and this year was the hardest for me, not because of the side effects I feel whenever I take the medicines, but the stress I experience every time I go to RITM. The nurses told me that they cannot give three and half months worth of ARVs, which I normally get, because they are ‘budgeting’ it to accommodate other patients. They only gave me two weeks’ worth of ARVs and I was asked to go back after I finish them,” he said.

The government, it seems, is covering up the real situation by not being open about this, as a consequence, some organizations supporting the PLHIV community end up making their own efforts to help augment the problem.

“The PLHIV community has been panicking for 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 said.

(IN)TANGIBLE EFFORTS

PLHIV in the Philippines is protected by the Republic Act 8504 (The Philippine AIDS Law), which includes the following provisions: HIV and AIDS education in the workplace; prohibiting compulsory HIV testing; medical confidentiality; and prohibiting discriminatory acts and policies in the workplace.

But while RA 8504 may be beneficial, it is not fully functional. Truth be told, it is not even being practiced by the people who are dealing with PLHIVs.

As RT, who remains traumatized by the treatment he received at the hands of healthcare providers when he went to the clinic in Malate, is right in saying that he didn’t deserve to be judged by the people who are supposed to take care and make him feel better.

Paolo shouldn’t have suffered for three weeks because the attending physician for HIV patients in his locality was on leave.

JB could have used the time he spent traveling back and forth to Alabang to do other things.

If the government is really doing anything to improve the lives of PLHIVs, then why are there PLHIVs experiencing unnecessary distress?

In the end, as far as healthcare provision is concerned, how long must Filipino PLHIVs should wait until they see concrete efforts from this government? When will they stop questioning the decisions made affecting them, and just enjoy the supposed benefits?

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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 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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