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Overlooked epidemic

Publication Date : 08-07-2012

 

Among the biggest news in medicine at present is the US Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the first ever over-the-counter kit with which Americans can test themselves for the human mmunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes the dreaded disease AIDS.

That’s how advanced the US fight against HIV has come, now allowing Americans to use a mouth swab to test their saliva and find out in 20 short minutes whether or not they have acquired HIV. The test kit, called OraQuick, is an important new step in America’s battle to prevent new HIV infections. It is said to be 99-per cent accurate.

That development is a galaxy away from the situation in the Philippines, where HIV seems to have become an overlooked epidemic. When AIDS was first discovered in the 1980s, Filipinos panicked, believing, for example, that one could acquire the virus simply by sitting on a toilet seat previously used by an HIV-positive person.

The next decades appear to have done little to change Filipinos’ ideas about HIV and AIDS. The 2008 National Demographic and Health Survey documented that only one out of five Filipino women had “comprehensive knowledge” of HIV. The survey also showed that two out of three Filipino women still did not know that HIV could not be acquired by sharing food with an HIV-positive individual or through mosquito bites.

There has been an alarming rise in the number of HIV-infected Filipinos, and the Philippines has fallen farther behind its neighbors in the struggle against HIV. Teresita Marie Bagasao, who heads the Manila office of the United Nations Programme on HIV-AIDS (UNAids), said early this year that the country had failed in preventing the spread of HIV. “While the number of HIV infections in the Philippines is still relatively low, the rate of increase in the number of cases is a cause for concern,” she said.

Bagasao went on to cite the 2010 Global AIDS report, which said that “the Philippines is still one of only seven countries in the world [and two countries in Asia that] have recorded a sharp increase in the number of HIV cases.” While other countries in Asia have reported the number of their HIV cases as either stabilised or decreased, the Philippines and Bangladesh are reporting increases. According to UNAids, the Philippines has seen a 50-per cent increase in new HIV infections over the last 10 years.

In 2001, there were only an estimated 600 HIV cases in the Philippines. But last year, the Department of Health was reported monitoring a stunning 4,600 new HIV cases. Also, 3,700 Filipinos have died of AIDS-related causes since 1984, with some 500 succumbing in 2010 alone. As many as 9,669 HIV cases have been recorded since 1984, and the number continues to climb. “If current efforts remain at the same level, there will be 30,000 to 45,000 cases of HIV in the country by 2015,” Bagasao said.

Despite Republic Act 8504, also known as the Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998, more and more Filipinos are being infected, mostly because of ignorance. Government efforts to educate the public on the matter have been clearly inadequate, leaving vulnerable many Filipinos at risk of HIV infection.

HIV is spread through transfusion of contaminated blood, needle-sharing by drug users, and an exchange of body fluids, which is why risky sexual behavior and unprotected sex are particularly dangerous. (The Church has not been of much help, with its continued opposition to the use of condoms.)

UNAids has observed that the Philippines is not spending enough money to solve the problem. It said the country needed to increase four-fold the current allocation of 1.76 billion pesos (US$42 million). “With decreasing external resources, the country needs to mobilise domestic resources to get ahead of the epidemic,” Bagasao said. “The country also needs to focus on where the disease is, as well as do things faster, smarter and better, based on evidence of what works.”

Furthermore, the Philippines is slipping in its attempt to meet its Millennium Development Goal of halting and reversing the spread of AIDS by 2015. It is facing the possibility of an AIDS apocalypse, such as the one that doomed Africa, because of plain indifference and misinformation. It is urgent that the government make the prevention of the spread of HIV a clear priority before it is too late. Bagasao warned: “While other countries managed to stabilise their epidemics, the Philippines still needs to muster the political will to face the challenge posed by this growing epidemic.”

 

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