IRIN News: Faces of HIV grow younger

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN

This article was originally published in the IRIN News website on March 8, 2011.

MANILA, 8 March 2011 (PlusNews) – Newly reported HIV infections among young people have increased 10-fold in the past three years in the Philippines, one of only seven countries worldwide where overall infections continue to climb, according to the government.

While youths aged 15-24 accounted for 12 percent of newly reported infections in 2007 (41 out of a total 342 infections), this figure jumped to 31 percent three years later (489 out of 1,591 infections), according to the National HIV/AIDS Registry.

Since the first case of HIV was diagnosed in the country in 1984, the Philippines has had a less than 1 percent rate of infection among the general population. However, in recent years, the number of HIV cases among high-risk groups has grown at an alarming rate, according to the Department of Health.

Transmission is now primarily among men having sex with men as opposed to heterosexual couples in 2007, said Eric Tayag with the Department of Health’s National Epidemiology Center.

In 2010, there were 1,591 new HIV diagnoses, a 90 percent increase from the reported 835 infections in 2009, itself a 58 percent increase over the previous year.

Against the trend

Worldwide, the rate of HIV infection is decreasing or under control, according to the Global AIDS Report of 2010.

But there is a “public health crisis in the offing” in the Philippines, said Jonas Bagas, vice-chair of The Library Foundation Share Collective (TLF), and adviser to the Philippine National AIDS Council.

“More will be infected, lives will be lost and the economy will be burdened. We’re looking at millions of pesos going to treatment, care and support for an epidemic that can be prevented. It is a red flag for the government that its prevention efforts, largely premised on abstinence, are not working,” he said.

Humphrey Gorriceta, 35, spokesman for the National Federation of Filipinos with HIV and AIDS, who was diagnosed positive at 32, said young people were passing on the virus without even knowing it.

“I think what is happening is a lot of blind transmission. The young people don’t know what they’re up against… culturally, sex and sexuality are topics that are not discussed among young people.”

Tailored approach

Jerson See, 22, was diagnosed four years ago. “I was getting sick a lot and couldn’t find the cause… I, of course, had heard of HIV already at that time. But I had never met nor did I know someone who was living with HIV,” said See who traced the cause of his infection to unprotected sex.

Unprotected sex remains the primary mode of HIV transmission. Eighty-nine percent of those infected in the Philippines in 2010 acquired the virus through intercourse, according to the National HIV/AIDS Registry.

Among high-risk groups, the Philippines has the lowest condom use in Asia – at about 20-30 percent, according to the Geneva-based International AIDS Society.

Cecille Villa, executive director of the local NGO, Foundation for Adolescent Development, which runs a youth sexual health counselling hotline, said youths naturally feel invincible.

“Though they are aware of consequences, they do not think that HIV is a reality that can happen to them… We need to develop programmes that are specific to the youth and their concerns instead of a general – one fits all – approach to HIV.”

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