HIV/AIDS "hidden but growing" problem in the Philippines
Manila (AFP) Dec 17, 2008
"I came out to show people we are normal," says AIDS worker Roberto Ruiz, who is fighting the social stigma that HIV/AIDS still carries in the Philippines.
While the government puts the number of HIV/AIDS cases at 8,600, Ruiz believes the number is much higher.
"The true number is probably fast approaching 10,000," said Ruiz, who sits on the board of trustees of Positive Action Foundation Philippines Inc.
He said local and foreign health experts used to say the Philippines is "low and slow in the prevalence of HIV/AIDS".
"Now, they have changed it to 'hidden and growing'," said Ruiz, 44, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1993.
While the foundation acts as a support group for HIV/AIDS sufferers in the Philippines it also conducts research and has an education programme aimed at lifting the stigma associated with the disease in a country where more than 80 percent of the 90 million population are Roman Catholic.
United Nations data, based on government figures, shows that last year there were 8,600 people suffering from HIV/AIDS in the Philippines despite the country's thriving sex industry and vast army of some eight million overseas workers.
In Thailand the figure is 610,000, in Vietnam 290,000 and Cambodia 75,000.
Soe Nyunt-u, the World Health Organisation's (WHO) representative in the Philippines, said the number of HIV/AIDS cases being reported each month, at 40-45, is nearly double this year compared to last year.
In October, there were 59 new cases detected, he told AFP.
He said the number of cases detected annually has also spiked to 454 in the first 10 months of this year, from 309 in 2006 and 342 last year.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," he said.
"The real number could be much higher than this," Nyunt-u said, adding that many cases still go unreported.
"What is alarming is that infections are now being found outside of the traditional high-risk groups: sex workers, drug users, men who have sex with men, and Filipinos returning from working overseas," Ruiz said.
Transmission among sex workers and other risk groups is going down "but it is in the general population that it is increasing," he said, citing the threat particularly among the young.
So far, health officials have found 481 people aged 15-24 who were infected, with 50 children below the age of 15 also infected. The children were all born of mothers with the disease, said Ruiz.
"There really needs to be a greater government focus on education and prevention programmes before it explodes," Ruiz said adding the programmes should not be confined to schools but feature at the workplace as well.
"The Department of Education has not done any firm HIV/AIDS programme yet, maybe because in the past there were no students and very few young people being diagnosed," Ruiz said.
Had HIV/AIDS education been carried out in high school, then perhaps many of the young people now infected would have avoided the disease, he said.
Ironically, the Philippines is credited with carrying out effective HIV/AIDS programmes among marginalised groups.
"There is a fairly established, organised civil society with many non-government organisations who work with the Department of Health to reach these marginalised groups," particularly sex workers, said Massimo Ghidinelli, a special WHO adviser on HIV/AIDS.
There are some obstacles: the Catholic Church has opposed sex education among children and the promotion of condoms -- two things that would help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.
This makes it unlikely that the Philippines will adopt the massive HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns that were so effective in Thailand, Ghidinelli said.
"Each country has its own cultural set-up. It doesn't mean there can't be proper intervention," he said.
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