This article was originally published in the IRIN News website.
MANILA, 21 November 2012 (PlusNews) – Social media, coupled with prevailing unsafe sexual practices, is driving up levels of HIV infection among men who have sex with men (MSM), health experts warn.
“There are indications that MSM who meet online have more opportunities for unsafe sex with multiple partners,” Eric Tayag, head of the Department of Health National Epidemiology Center (DOH-NEC), told IRIN/PlusNews in Manila.
According to recent results from the Philippines Integrated HIV and Behavior Serologic Surveillance Survey (IHBSS), the rate of infection is rising among MSM aged 15-24.
Since the DOH began recording HIV in 1984, there have been 10,830 reported cases in the Philippines. In 2007, the Philippines noted an exponential rise in HIV cases from 207 in 2005 to 2,349 in 2011 (a 587 percent increase), mostly among MSM.
The latest DOH AIDS Registry shows there were 316 new HIV infections recorded in September alone, and 82 percent were through MSM sexual contact.
During the same period in 2011, there were 253 new HIV cases and 83 percent was transmitted through MSM sexual contact.
But reaching this group, largely hidden, remains a challenge. “Not all of them identify as gay. Some are bi-sexual or even straight,” Tayag said.
Many MSM, in an effort to remain anonymous, turn to social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and other gay social media sites like Planet Romeo and Manjam to look for partners.
“Over a year, they can have anywhere between 43 to 500 partners,” said Tayag, referring to the results of the latest IHBSS survey.
A 2011 study by research group World Wide Foundation entitled Global Web Index, named the Philippines as the leader in terms of the use of social media.
Risky sexual behavior
Aldrin* admits to having participated in “P&P” sessions facilitated through social media outlets. “P&P means party and play and it really means an orgy that lasts all night,” he said.
Many of the participants are high on “poppers”, a slang term for various alkyl nitrites which are inhaled to enhance sexual pleasure, the 22-year-old explained.
“Sometimes, we have six people at the party, sometimes 12 or more. It depends. We use condoms, but sometimes I guess, they break,” he said.
Aldrin freely admits to using social media networks like Facebook and gay dating sites like Grindr, a mobile social networking and dating application allowing gay and bisexual men to meet using their mobile phone’s GPS capacity. He notes, however: “You have to know someone who knows someone to be invited.”
Low condom use
Others say the real issue is low condom use, an ongoing problem in the Philippines, and the fact that many men still refuse to get tested.
Condom use among MSMs is at a low 34.1 percent, DOH reports, while according to the Journal of the International AIDS Society, the Philippines has the lowest condom use in Asia (20-30 percent among groups at highest risk of HIV, including commercial sex workers).
Just 2.3 percent of married women of childbearing age reported using condoms, the country’s most recent National Demographic Health Survey reported.
“The process of getting tested is so complex,” Laurindo Garcia, who has been living with HIV since 2004, complained. “There are very few places to get tested and you have to travel a long way to get to a testing centre.”
The Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC) lists about 40 government-run social hygiene clinics, mostly in urban areas, that administer HIV testing for free or nominal fees.
There is currently no data on the number of people who have been tested for HIV. Testing is strictly voluntary.
“People don’t know where to get tested. They mostly think about going to private hospitals where an HIV anti-body test can cost anywhere between US$24-43, which is just too expensive for the average person,” said Ryan Pinili, president of Take the Test, a volunteer group offering free HIV counselling and testing to the general public.
In response, the group, in partnership with local government units, has set up monthly mobile testing centres in public areas such as municipal halls and at beach resorts known to be frequented by MSM during peak holiday seasons.
“Private hospitals which are bigger and have more patients do not offer counselling,” added Pinili, who says that counselling is an integral part of understanding HIV.
Basic coverage lacking
According to a 2012 assessment by the Philippines National AIDS Council, based on current trends, in general, the Philippines has a low HIV prevalence, estimated at 0.030 percent in 2010 or 30 cases per 100,000 adult Filipinos. Based on current trends, prevalence will double but remain below 1 percent by 2015 [0.063 percent, or 63 per 100,000].
“What we lack is basic coverage in terms of education, information and services. It’s very basic, but that’s what we need to deal with first,” said UNAIDS country coordinator Teresita Bagasiao.