“THIS is not the 80s anymore.”
The words of Senator Risa Hontiveros this week when sponsoring a new HIV and AIDS policy law have started the wheels turning in the Philippines for improved action to the country’s rising HIV epidemic.
The law, if approved, will improve access to HIV prevention services, including sex education and HIV testing. It lowers the age – from 18 to 15 – that youths can get tested without parental consent, even allowing those under 15 to get tested with just the consent of a social worker.
On top of that, it provides guarantees for funding for HIV response, and prohibits health insurers from denying coverage to people living with HIV.
It has been said that the Philippines has one of the highest rates of new HIV infections in Asia, with as many as 27 Filipinos – mostly those under the age of 24 – contracting the virus every day.
The Philippine Health Department reports that in 2016, there were 9,264 new HIV/AIDS cases documented while 844 cases were recorded in January this year alone. Of the total reported in 2016, 22 cases involved those aged 15 years and below.
The department also projects that this year, an estimated more than 55,000 Filipinos will have HIV.
According to Hontiveros, thanks to pharmacological advances, HIV is now a manageable condition.
But in spite of that, and the fact the global trend in HIV epidemic is declining, the Philippines is one of only nine countries in the world that has registered a more than 25 percent increase in HIV incidence.
- The epidemic has been expanding in urban centres, affecting the young and vulnerable: young Filipinos; gay and bisexual men; transgender people; and drug users;
- HIV testing remains low – only one of two Filipinos with HIV are aware they have the virus;
- A third of those infected have no access to lifesaving treatment;
- If improvements are not forthcoming, the number of Filipinos with HIV will hit 160,000 by 2022 and exceed half a million by 2030.
“Gone too soon – this is the usual comment from their friends when these young ones inexplicably die and their eulogies are done online.
“What breaks my heart, Mr. President, my dear colleagues, is that – this is not the 80s anymore. HIV prevention and treatment strategies can already be designed to reverse HIV incidence and end the epidemic,” the senator said.
“This emergency situation needs an emergency response,” he added, before introducing Senate Bill 1390, also dubbed the Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act to replace the Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998.
According to a copy of the Bill available online, the new law seeks to improve access to HIV services, especially for vulnerable communities, and ensure social and financial risk protection for those in need of such access.
It will also enhance anti-discrimination protection to promote the human rights of Filipinos living with HIV, recognising how the social stigma attached to the virus has prevented many from reporting their conditions or seeking treatment.
For example, Section 2(c) of the Bill offers the state’s commitment to, “remove all barriers to HIV and AIDS-related services by eliminating the climate of stigma that surrounds the epidemic and the people directly and indirectly affected by it.”
“Policies and practices that discriminate on the basis of perceived or actual HIV status, sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, economic status, disability, and ethnicity hamper the enjoyment of basic human rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and are deemed inimical to national interest.
“Towards this end, the State shall ensure the delivery of non-discriminatory HIV and AIDS services by government and private HIV and AIDS service providers and develop redress mechanisms for persons living with HIV to ensure that their civil, political, economic, and social rights are protected,” the Bill adds.
For better efficiency and alignment with evidence-based approaches to address the HIV epidemic, the law also outlines the roles and functions of the Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC).
The council, it says, will serve as an independent agency attached to the Health Department that functions with a separate budget, allowing it to act as the country’s HIV-AIDS policy-making, planning, coordinating and advisory body.
Another key highlight of the Bill is Section 27 on testing, screening and counselling. It says the state shall encourage voluntary HIV testing and that a person aged 15 and over will be entitled to testing without the need for parental consent.
Under current law, only those above 18 are allowed access to testing without parental consent. According to rights groups, this has served as a serious obstacle to testing and treatment for adolescents, with some clinics forced to skirt this provision by assigning its personnel to act as “guardians” in some cases.
“Mr. President, the time to be alarmed is now. The time to act is now. For the attainment of our Sustainable Development Goals. For the the Filipino youth, for the vulnerable and the marginalised, for those young people who need not die,” Hontiveros concluded.
Responding, Human Rights Watch (HRW) Asia division researcher Carlos H. Conde said the Bill is a major step for official efforts to control the Philippines’ HIV epidemic.
He raised concerns, however, about the Bill’s failure to mention the crucial role of condoms in HIV prevention.
Citing HRW’s December report on infection rates among men who have sex with men (MSM), Conde said lawmakers should address this by directing the Health Department to improve access to condom, particularly for those in this group.
“Doing so would help push back conservative lawmakers who hope to prevent promotion of condom use as part of safer sex education.
“It will also counter a recent decision by the Departments of Health and Education to withdraw a proposal to make condoms accessible to high school students,” he said.
In its December report, HRW outlined religious conservatism and restrictive policies inherited by the Duterte administration as key causes behind the rising HIV epidemic in the Philippines, particularly among the MSM.
It also urged the government to remove restrictions on condom access, despite influence from conservative elements in the government.
An estimated 80 percent of Filipinos are Roman Catholics and the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has long been vocal about its opposition to promoting safe sex practices and the use of contraceptives to prevent the spread of HIV.
President Rodrigo Duterte, however, has proven he does not dance to their tune. Earlier this year, the president signed an executive order to intensify access to modern family planning, despite objections from the conservatives.
He also accused Church leaders of corruption and sin, among other excesses, saying the Catholic Church is “full of shit”.