HEALTH: HIV AIDS is no longer a death sentence

Richard Navarro (not his real name) is a public senior high school teacher in Digos City, the capital of Davao del Sur. Navarro teaches accountancy and business and management strands.

In an interview, he said he grew up under the care of his mother, who’s a single mom. “I’ve felt the love from my relatives (mostly female figures),” he admits. “Just like they said, I was a mama’s boy. I used to play with cooking materials, but I never missed playing basketball, too. I even played traditional Filipino games outdoors with my friends in our neighborhood. I had a mixed upbringing during my childhood days.”

Today, he’s in his mid-30s and still single. But Richard had his sexual encounter during his second year in high school; it happened during one of school scout camps. “We just had torrid kissing and touching each other’s genitals,” he recalled.

He called such sexual encounters petty. During his third year, he admitted he was fucked by his foster brother “for some curious experience.” After that, he had lots of trysts. More so when he was already in college. He met some of his sexual partners in school organization meetings and even online chat platforms.

It was just a matter of time that he was infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the microorganism that attacks cells which help the human body fight infection, thus making a person more vulnerable to other infections and diseases. If left untreated, HIV can lead to the disease AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).

Most of his friends know that he is a person living with HIV (PLHIV) as he has revealed his situation to them. “Of course, they are saddened. (After hearing my story), they tapped my shoulder and wished that I will surpass all the things that are happening to me knowing that I have a positive outlook in life,” Richard disclosed.
In an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Health Secretary Dr. Teodoro Herbosa said that about 50 new HIV cases are now reported daily. “We’ve kind of doubled from (the) previous year of 22 cases a day,” he said.
A report from the regional office of the Department of Health (DOH) showed that from January to August 2023, Davao Region has 700 people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Since 1993, the total number of HIV/AIDS cases in the region is 6,736.

The upsurge of HIV/AIDS cases in the region can be attributed partly to intensification of HIV testing and enhancing awareness campaign among people that they could get the result faster after being tested, said Nemfa C. Adorable, an HIV and AIDS Core Team member of Southern Philippine Medical Center (SPMC).

This recent phenomenon is contradictory to what happened in the past. At that time, people were not properly educated about the dreaded disease. More myths were floating around which made people terrified of the mention of HIV/AIDS.

At the height of HIV/AIDS notoriety, there were some scribes themselves who suggested to the government to stop importing rice from Thailand. At that time, Thailand was known for its high HIV/AIDS cases and the Philippines was having a rice crisis.

The reason for the suggestion to stop rice importation was to counter HIV from entering the country because they thought the virus could live inside the sacks of imported rice. Such a claim was dumbfounded. The HIV virus, according to health experts, cannot survive once it is outside the human body.

Despite the fact we are now in the 2020s, there are still Filipinos who think you could get it from touching infected individuals. That’s far from the truth. “HIV does not survive long outside the human body and it cannot reproduce outside a human host,” the Atlanta-based US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explained on its website.

HIV is not transmitted by hugging, shaking hands, sharing toilets, sharing dishes, or close-mouth or “social” kissing (beso-beso) with someone who has HIV, CDC claims. It is not transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks, or other insects or through saliva, tears, or sweat.

HIV is transmitted by any of the following methods: sex, from a mother to her baby, and from sharing needles, syringes, or other drug injection equipment. As for sex, the riskiest is having anal sex with HIV-infected person. “Being the bottom is riskier than being the top,” CDC pointed out.

Vaginal sex is less risky but either partner can get HIV during the intercourse. “HIV can enter a person’s body during vaginal sex through the delicate tissue that lines the vagina and cervix,” CDC said.

As for oral sex, it is risky only if the ejaculation happens in the mouth with oral ulcers, bleeding gums or genital sores. There is also the presence of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

HIV can be transmitted from a mother to her baby during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding. “Mother-to-child transmission is the most common way that children get HIV,” CDC said.

Now, if you know someone is infected with HIV, what is your immediate response? Will you stop talking with the person and disassociate with him or her? Or do you share the information with others in the form of gossip? Or do you ask your barangay official to have the person confined in a hospital or to get out from the barangay?

Stigma and prejudice against those people living with HIV/AIDS still persist these days. But this should not be the case anymore. Effective treatment with HIV medicine – called antiretroviral therapy or ART – is already available. “If taken as prescribed, HIV medicine can reduce the amount of HIV in the blood (also called the viral load) to a very low level,” says the website of the US Department of Health and Human Services.
People with HIV who take HIV medicine as prescribed and get and keep an undetectable viral load can live long and healthy lives and will not transmit HIV to their HIV-negative partners through sex.

In Davao Region, a report from the Philippine Information Agency (PIA) said “there are enough stocks of free” ARTs, quoting health authorities. “We have no problem as our HIV treatment facilities are dynamic,” Maria Theresa Requillo, HIV and AIDS Regional Program Coordinator of DOH 11, was quoted as saying.

The free ARTs from the health department are available only at the HIV treatment facilities, which are in SPMC, Davao Region Medical Center in Tagum City, the Davao City Health Office through the Reproduction Health and Wellness Center, and Davao Doctors Hospital in Davao City.

“HIV is no longer a death sentence,” Dr. Louie Mar Gangcuango told EDGE Davao in an exclusive interview. “I wish that the advances in treatment and prevention, such as the long-acting injectable antivirals can be made available, accessible, and affordable worldwide, including my home country, the Philippines.”

Dr. Gangcuangco is currently with the Pacific AIDS Education and Training Center based in Hawaii. He is working with Dr. Cyril Goshima, who has led HIV education in the Pacific for the past 20 years.

“If HIV is detected early and if the patient takes antiretrovirals consistently, the virus can be controlled,” Dr. Louie Mar Gangcuango told EDGE Davao in an exclusive interview.

However, a person will only know that he or she is infected with HIV if he or she undergoes testing for HIV. “Knowing your HIV status is not just a right but also a responsibility. People with HIV can live normal and productive lives as long as they take their medications and follow-up regularly with your doctor. Getting tested is not only for yourself, but also for your loved ones,” says Dr. Gangcuangco.

According to studies, most people will develop a positive HIV test within 2-8 weeks after exposure. “Around 97% will develop these antibodies within 3 months of exposure,” said Dr. Willie Ong, author of Doctors’ Health Tips and Home Remedies. “A few rare cases (less than 3%) will take 6 months to become positive. Because of this, experts recommend that a person gets an HIV test at 6 weeks and at 3 months after exposure. It is optional to take another test 6 months after exposure.”

Now, the good news. Last July, a report from the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) said AIDS can be ended by 2030. UNAIDS – which unites the efforts of 11 UN organizations – leads and inspires the world to achieve its shared vision of zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths.
The UNAIDS report said there is a clear path that ends AIDS. “This path will also help prepare for and tackle future pandemics and advance progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” the report said

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