For one, it doesn’t just happen to LGBTQ+ people and, most important of all, it is not a death sentence
Beating AIDS and HIV and COVID-19 together
While we are about to see a light at the end of our dark COVID-19 tunnel, one virus still looms on the sideline and continues to threaten mankind’s health. Since the 1980s, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has affected many lives, and if left untreated can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
While there is still no effective cure for HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it can be controlled with proper medication, and, of course, education.
A 2020 report by the Philippine Department of Health (DOH) and the Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC) states that “an average of 21 new HIV cases are now reported in the country daily.” In October 2020, a total of 735 individuals were confirmed to be HIV-positive, and 96 percent of the group (704) were male. This statistical report explained that the nation is facing a budding public health crisis, and that continuous cooperation, collaboration with local communities, and dissemination of information are much needed.
Decades has passed since the discovery of the condition and many are still lacking knowledge about it, which caused many “negative attitudes, behaviors, and judgements toward people living with or at risk of HIV,” as hiv.org puts it.
To shed some light on the issue, especially this time of pandemic, Manila Bulletin Lifestyle chats with Raybert Domingo, LoveYourself‘s director for Communications and Community Development, as he shares information about the organization, what can you do to know your status today, and some innovations everyone should learn to end the stigma that acquiring HIV is like having a death sentence.
What is the story behind LoveYourself? How long has it been operating and who are the people behind it?
Established in July 2011, LoveYourself was the brainchild of Ronivin “Vinn” Pagtakhan, together with five of his friends. Before LoveYourself, Vinn has been active on Twitter educating people about taking care of their health, especially discussing topics about sexual health. Until the group members met with each other to create an organization that would cater to peer education, which we now know as LoveYourself. From only wanting to educate people to having a community that delivers various health services, LoveYourself continues to expand its horizons to serve more.
As a volunteer-led, community-based organization, it simply wanted to create ripples of positive change in the community, starting by empowering one’s self-worth. By valuing one’s self-worth, they’ll be able to love themselves, care for others, and together create a domino effect benefitting the larger community.
How did the organization manage to do its mission in the initial months of the pandemic?
Quick response to the situation is the key. With one thing in mind, LoveYourself cannot close down because thousands of clients rely on us. We cannot leave them hanging behind. With constant brainstorming and recalibration, we shifted our services online. We moved everything online, including peer education, prevention, testing and treatment services, and events and campaigns. All of these changes were initiated and made by volunteers and staff collaborating to benefit the community. We were constrained during the initial phase of the pandemic, but with the dedication and hard work of our employees, we were able to deliver the services our communities need: Sexual Health services appointment, SelfCare (HIV self-screening), Xpress Refill, Prevention Info.
Did the COVID-19 pandemic affect in any way the cases of HIV and AIDS in the country?
COVID-19 pandemic affected the delivery of HIV-related services across the nation. Indeed, it will have an impact on those who need the services the most. Those who might be unable to know their status, whatever it may be, will have difficulty accessing the services they need. There are also concerns of mental health among clients, which we have to address, too. But with full force online, we mitigated the worst-case scenario of having no services and no movement at all. We’re still lucky to have been able to provide the services amid the pandemic.
To make things clear, AIDS is a condition where the body deteriorates because of a compromised immune system, making it unable to fight off opportunistic infections. AIDS can’t be spread. HIV is the virus that can cause the condition–AIDS. HIV is infectious through four bodily fluids: semen, vaginal fluids, breast milk, and blood. It can only be transmitted into three modes: sex, mother to child, and needles/syringes. Hence, HIV and AIDS are different. Only HIV can be spread.
What can people do now in this time of pandemic to help with your causes and lessen the number of positive cases?
Despite the pandemic, people still have sex, especially that it’s a physiological need. Unprotected penetrative sex is the top cause of HIV transmission. It can be averted if people can make themselves aware of the preventive measures available in the country. People should share messages about the usage of:
- Condoms and lube;
- Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP, a daily pill a person with HIV-negative status takes to prevent HIV before being exposed to it);
- Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP, a pill/pills a person with HIV-negative status takes for 28 days to prevent HIV after being exposed to it; must be administered within 72 hrs. of exposure);
- HIV Treatment (With regular treatment, people living with HIV [PLHIV] can prevent transmission once they reach Undetectable status. It means the virus is suppressed and can no longer be transmitted to others. Undetectable equals Untransmittable U=U).
The power of positive messaging and sharing will surely help our community know about the available services and access them when they need them. This will also break the stigma and discrimination about HIV and the services. We hope that people improve their health-seeking behavior because this ensures the state and wellness of their health, which benefits and empowers them.
We can simply advise: Stay safer now against HIV because you have more choices to protect yourself from it amid the pandemic.
Up to this day, what are the common misconceptions people think about HIV and AIDS?
Let me give you three:
- HIV and AIDS are the same.
HIV and AIDS are different. HIV is a virus. AIDS is a condition caused by HIV. If you’re on treatment, the AIDS stage is preventable.
- Having HIV and AIDS is a death sentence.
At this point, HIV is highly manageable. Treatment works. When the medicine is taken religiously, PLHIV can live their lives to the fullest and prevent it from passing on to others. Thus, HIV and AIDS are NOT a death sentence anymore.
- For Gay Men Only
HIV infects humans, whatever the race, gender, age, and economic standing. Everyone is affected; hence everyone needs to protect themselves against HIV.
Let’s extend understanding, compassion, and love to PLHIV and the people who are most at risk of it. Educate ourselves and have an open mind to the latest developments and available services to prevent HIV, whatever your status be.
Do you have programs/testing events our readers should know about this Pride Month?
Currently, we have this singing contest, #ThisIsMyPrideSong, as part of our “U Matter: Pride Starts With U” campaign. It will culminate on June 26, 2021 at 4 p.m. with our Lollipop Fashion Show, streaming live via Lazada and LoveYourself Cebu Facebook page.
Lastly, we have an ongoing COVID-19 vaccination for HIV frontliners, PLHIV clients, and those who are under the A3 category. In partnership with Mandaluyong City, we were able to vaccinate around 3,000 individuals for their first dose. This week, we are giving the second dose for those inoculated with Sinovac. The batch vaccinated with AstraZeneca will be in August.
Next month, we will be celebrating our 10th anniversary. We’ll lead the National HIV Prevention Month 2021. Also, we will recognize fellow movers in the HIV community for the 3rd Ripple Awards.