The Philippine government should ensure continuity of HIV/AIDS care services even if it is still grappling with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) said.
According to UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima, “there has been disruption of HIV prevention, testing, and treatment services” amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is so important to bring them back on track because the Philippines has one of the fastest growing HIV epidemics in the world,” said Byanyima in an interview with the Manila Bulletin last Wednesday, May 12.
Byanyima said that HIV infections in the Philippines increased by 237 percent in the last 10 years. Moreover, AIDS related-deaths in “the last 10 years increased by 450 percent.”
“You are talking really a hyperbolic rise. So, unless we control it, the Philippines could have an explosion of the HIV epidemic,” she said.
Stigma and discrimination remain as the “main barriers” for accessing HIV prevention and treatment services, said Byanyima.
Byanyima said that it is critical that the government looks at how services are provided for prevention, testing, and treatment.
“It is mainly young people who are getting infected with HIV. It is important to give them services which are friendly to them, where they can go and not feel judged so that they can get prevention or they get tested and go on treatment,” she said.
The UNAIDS official also emphasized the importance of strengthening the country’s sexuality education program.
“We need to put sexual education in schools so that young people know from the beginning about their sexual health,” said Byanyima.
“You have a law on this in the Philippines, it now takes implementation, putting more resources, training teachers, and getting it to happen so that the young person understands their sexuality and makes the right choices at the right time,” she added.
The government must also allot enough budget for the HIV program, said Byanyima.
“The funding is important. You have a Universal Health Care policy and you’re moving towards putting all the services of HIV into that package,” she said.
“Right now, treatment services are there. But prevention services are not there in the Universal Health Care package. It’s important to bring those in as well,” she added.
The UNAIDS has committed to help the Philippine government in its fight against HIV/AIDS.
“We are helping the government to strengthen the surveillance of HIV. Surveillance is critical,” said Byanyima.
“So we help in a number of technical areas. We also help to leverage funding to fight HIV because there is a funding gap here in the Philippines–(just) as in many developing countries,” she added.
No longer a death sentence
The UNAIDS official said that HIV is no longer considered a death sentence.
“HIV is now at a stage where 40 years since it was first discovered, we now have a range of tools for prevention, for testing, and for treating. And with these all range of tools, HIV is now just a chronic illness… You can live a normal life and live to old age,” said Byanyima.
“If you have the virus and you go on treatment and stay on treatment…it is manageable. It’s no longer a death sentence,” she added.
It is also imperative for people to learn of their own HIV status, said Byanyima.
“It’s important that people– find their status. If they are negative, use prevention to make sure that they don’t get it. Safe sex and the range of tools, depending on your lifestyle that you can use to make sure you don’t catch it,” she said.
Stigma and discrimination about HIV should also be stopped, said Byanyima.
“There should be no discrimination, no stigma against people with HIV. They’re just normal like anybody else,” she said.
“People with HIV should be treated with respect and enjoy their full human rights. Prevention tools are there, nobody should get infected under it when tools are there, nobody should die of HIV today (and) of AIDS today,” she added.