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To defuse a time bomb

HIV/ Aids epidemic in the Philippines

At last, the inconvenient truth – that the Philippines is in the grip of a potential HIV/Aids epidemic – is being addressed. After years of denial by successive governments and the Philippine Roman Catholic Church, this is a problem that can no longer be hidden. It’s here and it’s now and unless money and resources are directed to solving it, it could kill off a generation and cripple the economy into the bargain. That’s why this is President Rodrigo Duterte’s next war.

And so next year, the Department of Health (DOH) is rolling out a countrywide programme that will include distributing condoms and holding counselling sessions in schools. It will target the youth – a section of society that has been all but excluded from Aids awareness. The DOH is not hiding its concerns; based on current trends, it projects there will be more then 55,000 new HIV infections this year.

These are very different figures to those released before, which supports our contention [The Philippines’ formidable hidden enemy,] The Volatilian™, 26 July, 2016] that the numbers have been regularly under reported.

What we already know is that every single day 26 new cases of HIV are diagnosed across the archipelago. But the transmission rate is likely to be multiples of this. Most at risk are young men indulging in male-to male sex. According to the UN, only 44% of this demographic use condoms – universally accepted as the safest practice to avoid transmission. The Philippines has the second-lowest condom use in the Asia Pacific, a region in which 5.1 million people are now documented as living with HIV.

A report just released by Human Rights Watch apportions blame for the spread of the disease specifically to the inaccessibility of condoms and lack of sex education. The stunning fact is, that Philippine teens commonly have little concept of HIV/Aids, including how it’s passed on. And why would they, attempts to educate them have been token at best. And anyway, under-18s have zero access to condoms; as minors they’re forbidden by law from buying them without parental permission. And given social attitudes towards the issue it’s unlikely many would even ask their parents. Nor can under-18s be tested for HIV without their parents’ say-so – the 1988 AIDS Prevention and Control Act prohibits it.

The DOH, as part of a universal health-care offensive intends to redress these shortcomings. In addition to providing greater condom accessibility and education programmes, it will be supplying HIV self-test kits to high-risk groups. PHP3 billion, Senate-approved, has also been added to the DOH budget to assist these initiatives.

The Philippines’ first Aids case occurred 32 years ago – to be exact, in January 1984. But three decades later, education about this disease and preventative measures to halt its spread have barely advanced. In fact worse; for the majority of that time – despite efforts by Aids awareness groups to put it on the government agenda – the repeated resistance by those elected and by the Catholic Church hierarchy has virtually ensured that the human immunodeficiency virus was left untroubled and could go forth and multiply. And it did.

What was the rationale – that revealing the true extent of the problem might deter tourists; among them sex tourists? That the country’s image might be besmirched? What was the plan – if it’s ignored it’ll magically go away? Out of sight, out of mind? Maybe no one’ll notice? Kick it down the road; make it the next administration’s problem?

And the Philippine Catholic Church; shepherd of the flock, what was its view of Aides/HIV? Divine retribution? Some cleansing plague? Pope Francis, himself, has condoned condom use to prevent transmission of the Zika virus; his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, said back in 2010 that condom use could be permissible to prevent the spread of disease. This is nothing to do with contraception to which the Church remains wholly opposed; this is about confronting a deadly and highly contagious disease.

Benedict specifically referenced male prostitutes. This is what he said: “[To reduce the risk of HIV infection, condom use] can be the first step in the direction of moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, or the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants”. Surely, his citing homosexual transmission was a clear signal that His Holiness was talking about disease, not birth, prevention.

Enactment of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health (RH) Act in 2012 was one of the greatest achievements of the last administration. Former president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, personally championed this bill and he’s to be commended for his efforts. However, due to pressure from the Catholic Church he was unable to get the legislation passed in its entirety.

Most importantly, as it turns out, a provision allowing access to condoms by the under-18s was removed. The Philippine Supreme Court, in the arrogant belief in its own wisdom, deemed that such a provision was unconstitutional. And yet this group is now among the most vulnerable. Between 2001 and 2015 HIV cases among 15 to 24 year olds rose by 780%. This year alone, this group saw a 62% increase in diagnosed cases. The question we should like to ask the Supreme Court, is how many young Filipinos should be expected to pay the ultimate price to uphold the Constitution?

Between the Church hampering condom distribution and the government’s lack of funds to provide them, the RH Act has failed to fulfill its promise – not just in HIV/Aids prevention but as a means of birth control; something which the country has been demanding for years.

We expect this government to go all out and do its utmost to bring this situation under control; conversely, we also expect that there will be dogged resistance from elements within the Church herarchy. In fact, that’s started. The DOH plan to hand out condoms in public high schools has already been attacked by a senior cleric. In the considered opinion of Bishop Aturo Bastes of Sorsogon, “Using condom is not even safe regarding the protection against HIV/AIDS”. Really? Would that be based on his own exhaustive research into this wretched disease?

But His Grace went further. “That is absolutely immoral, absolutely irresponsible. That is really a terrible practice. In my opinion, by doing that, it would make our people immoral and make our people un-Christian,” he said in a Radio Veritas broadcast last week. And as far as making condoms available to young people is concerned, the bishop believed that such a policy was nothing short of encouraging the youth to indulge in immorality.

The innocence of youth – the bloom of youth – is something to be celebrated; but not here, not now. This is about the doom of youth and Filipino teens deserve to be guarded from it – to know the truth about HIV/Aids; to be equipped to understand its dangers; to learn safe sex. It’s not just the good that die young, those left in ignorance do as well.

The government is committed to this programme and it will soon throw it into high gear. But the Church needs finally to play its part; the young among its flock are not in danger of losing their souls; they’re in danger of losing their lives. And the streets of Heaven don’t need any more young people – particularly those sent there through neglect.

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