Suspension of Disbelief

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Having HIV as an ongoing personal battle

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Outrage Magazine | 21 July 2015

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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.

Positive-life

When Paolo – who was diagnosed to be HIV positive in 2007 – started taking antiretroviral (ARV) medicines, his life changed permanently. But even with the life-saving ARVs, he continues to have doubts if his status is, as many continue to believe, a punishment for his bad deeds, or maybe even a death sentence. After all, there was a point in his life when – knowing how difficult having HIV could be, he still irresponsibly knowingly engage in risky practices that may have infected his partners (i.e. spreading “the gift”). Not surprisingly, Paolo still experiences chronic depression.

Only last month, he faced another battle. His attending physician conveyed her concern toward his declining CD4 count. Because of this, Paolo may have to be shifted to the second line of ARVs.

“It was late last year when my doctor at San Lazaro Hospital told me that I should watch out for my declining CD4 count. She said that it might be a sign of too much stress or a problem with my ARV combination,” Paolo said.

When he went to the hospital last April to get his ARV supply, he was only given meds for one month (versus the usual 3 1/2 months’ supplies). It was also then when he was told that they have to wait for his latest CD4 count before they can give him more supplies.

The following month, Paolo had his CD4 count tested. True to form, yet still shocking Paolo, the decline continued. “My CD4 count was in a downward trend: 388 in May 2015, 426 in November 2014, 454 in May 2014, 470 in November 2013, and 533 in May 2013.”

Paolo’s CD4 count was 582 in December 2008, when he had his baseline tests; with the number immediately falling to 327 in June 2011.

There have been fluctuations (e.g. from 327 in June 2011 to 368 in March 2012), but Paolo’s attending physician said that ever since the last increase, “the numbers continued to go down, and it may be a sign of drug resistance or treatment failure.”

He was immediately asked to have a viral load test to check the number of HIV copies in his blood. His doctor also gave him a heads up on what he should expect if the result was high.

“The test costs P6,000. Even if I’m an old PhilHealth member and I’m able to avail free CD4 count tests and ARV medications, under the OHAT package, I was still asked to pay that amount. When this happens to you, complaining is the last thing on your mind. For me, I just want to know the result,” Paolo said.

He was told to return after three weeks for the result.

“It was probably the longest three weeks of my life. A lot things started running in my head: What if it’s high, would I be able to take the side effects of the level 2 medications? What if it’s low and my CD4 count continues to decline, what will happen to me?” Paolo asked. “During that three weeks, I had sleepless nights. I couldn’t even disclose it to the 16-year-old guy I was seeing. I was really afraid. I had no one to run to. I don’t want to die yet.”

Paolo was also reluctant to reach out to support groups.

“It’s not them who can and will help you because they don’t really know what you’re feeling, HIV is a personal thing. Support groups are not really supportive enough. Yes, you will have someone to talk to, but at the end of the day, it’s not them, not your friends, not even your family, who can help you get over what you’re feeling. Just yourself,” Paolo said.

But Paolo’s life did not stop while he waited for the test ascertaining his viral load.

“I started to see things from a different perspective. I’m able to appreciate and value even the smallest and simplest things. I know that it may be temporary because of the situation I was in, but it gave me a reason to smile and be thankful,” Paolo said.

He told Red, a friend his who is also HIV-positive, about his situation. Paolo reconciled with him after a long time.

“I know I was going to explode if I didn’t tell anyone about my situation. I felt a bit relieved after I told him what I was going through,” he said.

After then, both at work and at home, Paolo became more relaxed. He also started joining different LGBT- and HIV-related events. He even participated in the 21st Metro Manila Pride March last June, where he marched for the first time.

Paolo wanted to much to be optimistic. “There are so many better things that one can do, regardless if you’re a PLHIV or not,” he said.

And then the third week came. Paolo went back to San Lazaro Hospital to get his test result.

“The anxiety of waiting for the folded and stapled paper to be handed to you was really exhausting. The lady who was assisting the clients in the laboratory was moving very slowly. And when she finally handed the paper to me, I was able to breathe normally,” he recalled.

His result indicated 84 copies/mL.

“I was told by my doctor to rest more often and that I should also lessen stressful activities,” Paolo said.

His ARV medications stayed the same, and he was already given three months’ worth of supplies.

His CD4 count will be checked again after six months. And his doctor, provided that he continues to improve his lifestyle, remains optimistic that everything will be okay.

“I know I’m not the perfect role model. But based on what I’ve gone through, being a PLHIV is one difficult challenge. It’s not as simple as some doctors or support groups say. No one can and will help you, but yourself,” Paolo said. “It’s not easy to accept your situation, but instead of being too negative, why not do something about it?”

Paolo recommends self-sufficiency in facing being HIV positive.

“You can always live your life to the fullest, just don’t forget to look out for yourself. It may sound selfish, but at the end of the day, you are responsible for your own welfare,” Paolo ended.

*NAMES WERE CHANGED AS REQUESTED BY THE MAIN INTERVIEWEE TO PROTECT THE PRIVACY OF THE PEOPLE INVOLVED

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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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Confessions of a former ‘gift’ giver…

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Outrage Magazine | 08 June 2015

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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.

POZ

“I felt a sudden jolt after I came/orgasmed inside the person that I was having sex with bareback,” Paolo said. He didn’t look particularly happy; he even had a blank stare.

But he was open about sharing his sexual experiences with me.

Particularly that part in his life, when he used to be a “participant of a small group of HIV-positive straight-acting gays who frequent different places in the metro and engage in different sexual activities.”

Paolo, by the way, was diagnosed with HIV in 2007. After he registered and submitted his medical documents in San Lazaro Hospital, he didn’t go back until early 2011.

LIVING LIFE TO THE FULLEST

“Maybe I’m the type who doesn’t dwell much on problems. I was aware that I will be battling a lifelong endeavor (being HIV-positive), but I didn’t want to think about it to the point that my life would be hindered,” he said.

When his boyfriend at the time broke up with him, right after he regained his strength from the ARV trial period he had to endure, he lived each day as if it was his last.

“I revealed my condition to some friends and they have been very supportive,” Paolo said. His friends were so supportive, in fact, that “we were going out almost every night.”

It was during one of those night outs that he met Red*.

Red is also HIV-positive; he was diagnosed a year later than Paolo. They became fast friends after their first meeting. “There was nothing sexual nor intimate between us. We were just really good friends,” said Paolo, who found solace in the company of Red.

Partying for Paolo meant frequenting the likes of gay bars, including Bed Bar and O Bar. “I was living my life to the fullest; like I’m HIV-free,” Paolo said.

Bar-hopping – according to Paolo – also happened in the likes of Fahrenheit, Palawan, Blue Fairies, and others.

Though Paolo admitted that he was a regular in those establishments, for a while, he went there solely to party.  Picking up was not in his mind, as he was “still afraid and very cautious to have sex with another person. I was only doing oral sex that time.”

Soon, though, everything changed.

NEWFOUND INDEPENDENCE

As shared by Paolo, during one of their “crazy nights” in a bar in Quezon City, “Red and I met a group of good looking and gym-toned straight-acting gays. We had drinks at (this) bar. And after an hour of laughter, we left the club and went to (a bar) in Ortigas,” Paolo recalled.

The night went by like their “regular night outs”. They watched the performances, ordered several bottles of beer, and flirted with different people.

Little did Paolo know that he actually signed up for a different type of fun that night.

“I think it was around 3:00 AM and we were all very tipsy, when one of our newfound friends, Marvin*, started kissing someone he just met on the dance floor,” Paolo narrated. “And then he pulled me closer to them and started rubbing my crotch.”

Tara, sama ka sa amin (Come join us),” Paolo remembered Marvin saying with a smile.

The three of them left that bar and went to Marvin’s apartment.

“While I was getting head from the guy we picked up from the bar, Marvin positioned himself behind him. He started penetrating him without a condom,” Paolo recounted. “After several minutes, he held the bottom guy closer to him, holding his waist tightly, and shot his load.”

After their encounter, the guy they picked up just got dressed and then immediately left. And while Paolo was fixing himself, Marvin asked if he wanted to grab an early breakfast. He agreed.

Their conversation while eating turned from recounting what happened at Marvin’s apartment to being confrontational.

“’I saw what you took when we were at O Bar, and it wasn’t a party pill!’, Marvin told me. I was silent at first, and then he continued: “It’s okay, don’t worry, pareho lang tayo (we’re the same),” Paolo said.

SHARING “THE GIFT”

From then on, Paolo and Marvin’s group became this close-knit circle that frequented the bars, flirting and picking up random people, and inviting them to go with them for sex.

“It became my routine. I went to those places three to four times a week to meet different people. And I always performed unprotected sex with them. At that time, I thought I was satisfying my ego, that I had the upper hand and in control,” Paolo said, shaking his head.

He also thought “I was sharing the ‘gift’.”

It reached a point where he no longer joined Marvin’s group and just went out to party and pick up on his own.

“Last year was really the height of my inappropriate routine. As people flocked O Bar, for instance, my choices widened. Every time I went there, I always made it a point that I will be bringing someone home. It became very addicting,” he admitted.

And there were times that “after finishing someone, I would go back to bars to pick up someone again.”

Red*, who ended up knowing about Paolo’s “addiction”, tried talking him out of it.  Paolo just “refused to respond to his calls and text messages.”

TURNING POINT

Last March, according to Paolo, when he went to a bar in Ortigas, “I met this really cute guy. He was about the same height as I am, and he had a really good built,” Paolo said.

They shared drinks together and danced to several songs. And like usual, he invited this guy back to his place.

Paolo had unprotected sex with him. But unlike most of the his one-night encounters, this new guy chose to spend the night at his place.

“We had sex three times that night – at all times, I came inside him. The following day, he gave me a call saying that he wanted to have lunch with me,” Paolo recalled.

They met and had lunch together. It was also then that he found out that this new guy really likes him.

“He also confessed to me that he was only 16 years old,” Paolo added.

Paolo paused and lit another cigarette. Suddenly, his phone rang; he excused himself.

He returned, looking apologetic.  “Sorry about that. It was the 16-year-old guy I was telling you about,” he said.  He lit another cigarette.

And then sitting across me again, he continued: “We started dating after that unfortunate night. I really like him. But at the same time I feel guilty. He is still young and I (may have given) him the disease. I was awakened. I wanted to die after learning that he was only 16 years old. I felt really sorry for myself… that I had to do those things.”

Paolo was misty-eyed while talking; he even rubbed his eye, looking more like wiping his tears. He cleared his throat, and then continued smoking, finishing his cigarette.

“I know that I’m a bad person because I did all those things and it took me a long time to realize that,” Paolo said. “If I could only turn back time, I would not have done all those things.”

He also added that if he would be given a chance, he would talk to all the people that he had unprotected sex with and ask for their forgiveness.

“Some people living with HIV do really go around to spread the ‘gift’,” Paolo said. There are those who “are out there victimizing HIV-negative members of the community.”

Being more aware, Paolo also believes in one’s responsibility over oneself – helped, obviously, with further education that empowers people to protect themselves.  “Even if you’re having a fun time, never let your guard down. You should never completely trust anyone when it comes to sex, especially when you are at your most gullible and vulnerable self,” Paolo ended.

*NAMES WERE CHANGED AS REQUESTED BY THE INTERVIEWEE TO PROTECT THEIR 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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Paolo: Being HIV-positive as a personal struggle

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Outrage Magazine | 25 May 2015

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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.

POZ2

He was standing on the balcony of one of the coffee shops in Tomas Morato, puffing his cigarette before he spotted, and then waved at me.

“Hi, I’m Paolo, patient H42007XXX*,” he said to me when we were face to face, introducing himself as he reached for my hand.

Several weeks back, I received an email from an unfamiliar sender, asking if I wanted to write about the “real deal of being a PLHIV in the Philippines”. Having written about the issues facing the HIV community in the Philippines, including the ARV stockout, this was not exactly uncommon.  Outrage Magazine also has a campaign – “More than a number” – that aims to give a human face to those affected by HIV.  But the following day, the same sender sent another email; and this time, it seemed more… convincing.

Dear Mr. Pascual,

I came across your contact details while browsing Outrage Magazine.

I am reaching out to you for an interview. I want to give firsthand details and experiences on what it’s like to be a PLHIV. I want to share my perspective. We can set a meeting so you can listen to my story.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking anything in return, I just want to share what I know and what I have been to in the last eight years; probably, to help and inspire other PLHIVs and to educate members of the LGBT community.

Hoping for your favorable reply.

Regards,

Patient H42007XXX

WAKE-UP CALL

“I remember the time when I found out that I am HIV-positive. It was the summer of 2007. My friends and I usually get ourselves tested every six months because of the kind of lifestyle we were practicing,” Paolo recalled.

Before being diagnosed, he spent most of his nights in different LGBT places in the metro, including clubs and bathhouses. He admitted to partying, drinking, and taking recreational drugs like there was no tomorrow.

He did go to “San Lazaro to register and submit my test results. I felt that it was the right thing to do,” he said.  Paolo also admitted his status to his closest friends, even if kept it from his family.

Even after he tested positive, Paolo’s lifestyle remained as wild as usual.  “I was out every night. Because whenever I’m sober, when I’m alone and the surrounding is quiet, that’s when depression kicks in. Yes, I’m okay. Yes, I already accepted my status. But, things are not that easy. I always need a distraction to take my mind off things,” Paolo said.

After his few initial visits to the treatment hub, he stopped going for four years and only returned in early 2011, when one of his friends also tested positive and asked for his help.

“My CD4 count at that time (in 2007) was 582; it was high enough. But when I went back to the hospital in 2011, it was already 327. I was really worried,” Paolo said.

STARTING TREATMENT

When his CD4 count reached that level, he was advised by the doctors to start taking antiretroviral medications.

Paolo was willing to start the trial period of the treatment, but one of the hub’s policies at that time was for a patient to have a treatment partner before they allow and give them the medicines.

“I have no one to ask,” Paolo said.

He was living on his own that time.

“And although my friends knew my status, I didn’t want them to go through the endeavor I was going through,” he recalled.

So he convinced the doctors to allow him to start the treatment on his own and assured them that he would comply with all the requirements of the hub.  Paolo was made to sign a waiver, indicating that whatever happened to him, the treatment hub or attending doctors will not be held liable.

“I was given two weeks’ worth of Lamivudine/Zidovudine and Nevirapine. The doctors also gave me a list of allergy-causing food and was asked to avoid them for three months,” Paolo said.

During the first few days of intake, Paolo started feeling pain and was feverish.

“The doctors explained the possible initial side effects of the ARVs; but to actually feel it first hand, it was like hell. Two days in, my whole body was in pain. My fever was rising every day. I wasn’t allowed to take Paracetamol. I wanted to stop taking the medications, but I know it wouldn’t do any good,” Paolo said.

He lost almost 30 lbs after one week. His fever played from 39°C to 43°C, and patches of red marks also started to appear in different parts of his body.

“I was very weak. I called the treatment hub and told them about my condition. I was asked not to stop taking the ARV meds and finish the two-week trial. But before I was able to reach the 14thday, I was experiencing unbearable headaches and muscle pain, it felt like I was going to die,” he said.

The first thing the following day, he went to the hub and waited for the doctor.

He was injected with a high dose of Iterax.

“That morning, the antihistamine that was given to me was really strong. I took the train on my way home. It was really difficult. It was a mix of headache, nausea, and muscle pain,” Paolo recalled.

After one week, he was asked to go back to the hub. He was given another set of ARVs.

“Good thing they shifted my medication to Efavirenz. Even if I feel groggy every time I take it, it’s more tolerable than Nevirapine,” he added.

FEELING LOW

“I remember when I lost weight and when red patches started to appear on my skin, I felt so low. I couldn’t see myself anymore. I wore a jacket all the time so people would not see how ugly I WAS becoming,” Paolo said.

He was also making every possible effort to act and look normal at work, even if it was close to impossible.

“In the office, I was always blank and not functioning normally. Some of my officemates even started teasing me when they noticed the red patches on my skin. I felt really down, I almost felt suicidal,” he said.

Though his friends communicated with him everyday to check his condition, for Paolo, it was not enough.

“Even if I have friends who were there for me, the feeling was so impalpable. It was unexplainable. No one can really gauge what PLHIVs feel except themselves. At the end of the day, after you separate with the people who listen to you, the depressions would start to kick in. And every time I’m alone in my room, that’s when the tears start to fall – not because I have HIV, but the struggle I experience everyday in dealing with this,” Paolo shared.

He also joined different organizations that cater to the needs and welfare of PLHIV, but that didn’t help him either.

“Those support groups, yes, they’re doing a superb job, no doubt about that. But in reality, it’s not them who can and will help you because they don’t really know what you’re feeling, HIV is really a personal thing. Support groups… I have been involved with three of them, and they have not really offered enough support particularly when you’re experiencing a chronic type of depression. Sometimes, crying all by yourself while you’re drunk is better than repeating your story over and over again to a group of people,” Paolo ended.

*EXACT PATIENT CODE WAS REMOVED AS REQUESTED BY THE INTERVIEWEE TO PROTECT HIS 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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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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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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