QUEZON CITY, (PIA) -- The Action for Health Initiatives, (ACHIEVE) which a Civil Society Organization, observed the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial 2023 through organizing a press conference with the objective of raising the alarm over the increasing number of deaths among people living with HIV (PLHIV) and increasing number of young people getting infected with HIV.
They also invited stakeholders to talk about the current status of HIV and AIDS in the country, along with other issues such as the stigma and discrimination against PLHIV. The press conference was held at Novotel Manila Araneta City on 22 May 2023, Monday. The event’s theme is “Listen, Learn and Take Action Now.”
ACHIEVE works on human rights, gender and other health and development issues affecting migrant workers, people living and affected by HIV, and people affected by TB.
According to ACHIEVE and UNAIDS, in the Philippines, a total of 6,474 have died because of AIDS-related causes since 1984. Out of this, 4,558 or 70% came from the youth sector who are less than 35 years of age. In 2022, data shows 651 deaths among people who were diagnosed with HIV. This demonstrates an increase from only 491 deaths recorded in 2021.
ACHIEVE Executive Director Amara Quesada-Bondad provided a backgrounder about the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial. She said this memorial started in United States back in 1983, four decades ago when first memorial was commemorated to recall and shed light on the issue of HIV and AIDS and honor the lives, not only of those who have been lost to AIDS but also those who have tried to contribute to combatting such an epidemic.
“Hopefully, we act better. We don’t just act now, we act better.”
She said, “For this session, we wanted to zero-in on a specific issue because there is an alarming number of deaths caused by AIDS and its complications that are happening in an age when HIV treatment is available.”
Director Bondad enumerated the objectives of the event. Among those mentioned are remembrance of those who passed on because of AIDS-related complications; and to understand the context and relevance of the numbers of AIDS-related mortality and new infections; to provide platform for community representatives to talk about their concerns and to make their calls to action and to provide our duty bearers the platform to also talk about their plans and their commitment on how to address this growing concern of AIDS-related deaths.
UNAIDS Philippines Country Director Dr. Lui Ocampo confirmed based on Global AIDS Monitoring Report that HIV is still a global epidemic.
He said in 2021, there are already 38.4 million PLHIV globally and 650 thousand deaths related to AIDS causes in 2021. In terms of new infections, there is a registered 1.5 million cases. This number is already a reduction of 32% in annual infections when 2010 and 2021’s data are compared. The Philippines meanwhile, is showing a different direction. Globally, AIDS is already decreasing but, in the Philippines, there is a 327% increase in annual new infections between 2010 to 2021 and the country registered 21,400 new infections in 2021. In terms of annual death, the country registered 401% increase of rate between 2010 and 2021.
According to Director Ocampo, the estimated PLHIV in the Philippines could reach 364,000 by 2030 in which nearly half of the new infections will be among the youth ages 15 to 24 years old. According to the director’s presentation, there are gaps in the HIV care cascade which is a contributes to the increasing new HIV infections in the country.
“We need to break the cycle of HIV transmission for us to reduce the infections. Number one, key and vulnerable population should have access to preventive services, and or practice protective behavior by using condoms or by using pre-exposure prophylaxis for them to be able to retain their HIV negative status at the same time, those who are already diagnosed should be on the life saving anti-retroviral drug and should be virally suppressed. Third, we need to address barriers to access services and ensure that enabling environment for the key population, enabling environment in terms of policies, guidelines, sufficient investment-run programs and also addressing stigma and discrimination,” the director explained.
He discussed ways to break the cycle of transmission.
“HIV is not just a health issue. We need collaboration from other government agencies aside from Department of Health (DOH) because HIV is beyond health. We need collaboration from Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), Department of Justice (DOJ), and from Education to provide comprehensive sexuality education and to empower our young people for the behavior change that they want. Also, expanding services to reach more population, to treat more people and to start treatment as soon as possible.”
His presentation also showed key strategies which are: (1) Strengthening of Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) implementation and other prevention strategies; (2) Scaling up of testing diagnoses and treatment coverages; (3) Expansion of Rapid HIV Diagnostic Algorithm (rHIVda) and treatment facilities; (4) Improved strategies for retention to treatment; (5) ensuring and strengthening and enabling environment for PLHIV KP and health and service providers.
Meanwhile, Senator Risa Hontiveros, the author of RA 11166 or HIV Policy Act, asserts the urgency of fully implementing the RA. She said the heavy burden that many people living with HIV had to carry is mainly created by social stigma. According to the Senator, despite the innovations in Science and Technology and policies, it is discrimination that stands in the way of healing and dignified lives for many people living with HIV.
“What we need is the urgency, certainness, and cooperation of all concerned agencies and institutions to fully implement the law, especially its provisions of protecting the rights of PLHIVs to life free from stigma and discrimination. We must make this fight a priority once more until HIV and AIDS have been eradicated,” the lady Senator explained.
Ms. Elena Felix, Convenor of Network + and also a PLHIV, shared to the audience how she experienced stigma and discrimination from the community. She is championing for the welfare of youth who are living with HIV.
“Hiling ng HIV positive community na matutukan ang kawalan ng edukasyon sa HIV ng mga kabataan. Ang kawalan ng impormasyon ay kawalan din nila ng proteksyon. Nakikita sa data mula na DOH na parami ng parami ang infection among youth. Ang pagbibigay ng tamang information ay dapat na may kaakibat na access to services,” Ms. Felix said.
She hopes there will be AIDS-sensitive redress mechanism that is appropriate for the youth to ensure their protection. She encourages the participation of institutions providing services to PLHIV in the process of Community-led monitoring. Her group also demands from PNAC members to allocate enough fund to focus on programs and services for youth living with HIV.
Atty. Elaine Fallarcuna, ASEC for Statutory Programs under Operations Group of DSWD, presented the department’s response and statement of commitment.
“As for the DSWD, we are one in sustaining and strengthening of this momentum through our continued commitment in fulfilling our mandates in accordance with RA 11166. The DSWD will continue implementing schemes to help reduce the stigma and discrimination to make it easier for people to access HIV-related treatment, care and support services in order to diminish the risk of infection, increase adherence to treatment and foster resilience.”
She said the DSWD will continue to focus on the provision of economic support to PLHIV. The department is also committed to “further strengthen the governance, leadership and service delivery through the conduct of capacity building to local government units and operationalization of referral mechanism among government agencies and local government units.”
“To all those living with HIV and AIDS, we acknowledge you, your courage, dignity and your worth,” ASEC Fallarcuna concluded.
Hercules Orilla, a youth living with HIV, also shared his story of discrimination and how he remains strong in his plight.
“Laging sinasabi ng tatay ko sa akin na kahit saan ka magpunta o manirahan, huwag mong ikakahiya ang kwentong mayroon ka dahil una sa lahat, ang kwento mo ang magbabago sa buhay ng mga kabataang katulad mo.” Orilla narrated.
“I sit here in front of you. Habambuhay kong babantayan ang pagbabago, I will still fight for our young kids,” he assured everyone.
The event ended after the guests formed a human red ribbon. According to ACHIEVE Executive Director Amara Quesada-Bondad, the red ribbon is the symbol for HIV and AIDS advocacy internationally. (ARB, PIA-CPSD)