[DASH of SAS] HIV: Young people are dying when they shouldn’t be

The numbers will tell you their own story of how HIV is a concentrated epidemic among men who have sex with men, between the ages of 20-29.

My Facebook newsfeed reads like something out of the 1980s.

I see a lot of short eulogies posted by friends paying homage to friends who have been taken before their time.

There is usually something consistent about these memorial tributes: the deceased is a young person – usually in their 20s – and the circumstances surrounding his passing are vague.

Sometimes a cause is mentioned: pneumonia, tuberculosis, meningitis. But often questions in the comments thread are swept under an answer of “gone too soon.”

Parallel to this are real life conversations that have crossed the digital divide, carried out in hushed whispers and muted grief.

Ranier Naldoza, 26, has heard at least two of these conversations. Once was at the wake of a friend where a relative of the deceased consoled him saying, “Don’t worry, at least now, he is in heaven.”

At another wake, he was discreetly informed that the testing and diagnosis for his deceased friend came too late for him to be treated. “Why he didn’t come to me, why he didn’t ask me for help?” Ranier wondered even though he already knew the answer.

Moral verdict

Ranier has been living with HIV since he was 19. He remembers all too well how difficult it is to muster the courage to get tested and disclose your HIV status.

“When first got tested, I asked my most trusted friend to go with me and he did. The day that I told him I tested positive was the last time I heard from him,” said Ranier.

“If someone I considered as my closest friend could shut me out like that, I figured anyone else could.”

Now, at 26, Rainer is the HIV focal person for the Family Planning Organization of the Philippines (FPOP) and has served as peer counselor in various organizations. He continues to see the difficulty of young people in accessing sexual health information and services.

“There is this ‘moral verdict’ that you’re too young to be asking (about) or doing those things,” he said about the silent and sometimes voiced accusation against a young person asking about sexual health matters.

HIV Rising

Every month the Department of Health – National Epidemiological Center (DOH-NEC) releases a surveillance report on the number of HIV infections in the country.

The numbers will tell you their own story of how HIV is a concentrated epidemic among men who have sex with men, between the ages of 20-29.

It was in 2007 when the DOH first warned the public about a spike in HIV cases and possible continuous uptrend if nothing is done. (Read: Is HIV going out of fashion?)

Scientific interpolation gave them the benefit of clairvoyance, while the denial of the general public and government’s downplay of the issue allowed for their prophecy to come true.

In 1984 when the DOH-NEC Registry first started, there were 2 reported HIV cases. As of the May 2014 report, there have been 2,320 cases since the start of the year.

There are an estimated 18,836 HIV reported cases in the Philippines. Activists and health workers say many more go unreported. (WATCH: Love in the time of HIV)

No one dies from HIV

“It’s true. We just might see what New York and San Francisco saw in the 80s. This is not hearsay,” said Chris Lagman, director for communications of Love Yourself, an organization that offers free HIV testing and counseling in partnership with the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM).

Chris and I could still remember those days in the 80s, a then unnamed disease swept through San Francisco and New York.

Chris and his friends had conversations that echoed the posts on my timeline years ago and decided to do something about it.

“Love Yourself was formed by a group of people who felt that they had lost one too many friends to HIV-related deaths,” said Chris who also started the blog Manila Gay Guy.

In the 3 years since the group was formed, Chris estimates that they have tested over 16,000 people, about 14% have tested positive.

“We still have 86% who are negative. We need to help them stay negative,” said Chris.

But he still gets keeps getting the same message.

“I hear news about someone dying about once a week. Once, I got news of as many as three people dying in one week,” Chris said.

He’s noticed another trend, too. Now women are coming in for testing when three years ago, they were not. And some women are testing positive.

“It’s (HIV) not a ghost story anymore. It really is happening. And it will continue to happen.”

Both Ranier and Chris say that late diagnosis and getting lost in follow up testing are common reasons why HIV is not treated or managed even though anti-retroviral (ARV) medication is available.

Chris, however, added another factor: love. “There are many we have counseled who don’t use or stop using condoms when they are in a serious monogamous relationship. That goes for both men and women.”

As they say, when you sleep with someone, you sleep with their (sexual) history. Monogamy cannot guarantee protection against sexual history or indiscretions.

Philippines losing against HIV

In just 30 years, scientists and epidemiologists have made incredible advancements starting with the discovery that HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) now classifies HIV as a “chronic, manageable disease.”

And yes, it’s true that no one dies from HIV. They die from opportunistic infections as a result of HIV. (This is likely why it is difficult to identify HIV-related deaths.)

In its simplest terms, the way that HIV works is that it attacks your immune system so your body gets sicker and sicker until it cannot fight off what they call “opportunistic infections” like pneumonia, tuberculosis, or meningitis.

“Sadly, HIV in the Philippines is fast rising,” Laurindo Garcia, a civil society advocate and founder of the social enterprise, B-Changetold me during the AIDS2014 conference in Melbourne, Australia. At a conference presentation, Laurdino showed a graph to show just how fast. “It was almost a straight vertical line. If there is any reason for us to be worried, it’s now. We are in crisis mode.”

“Two things have to happen,” said Laurindo. “First, the community has to speak up and make our voices heard. Second, the government has to acknowledge there is problem.”

Laurindo slammed the DOH’s recent move to push for mandatory testing as “an easy way out” that will only undermine current efforts to curb HIV.

Seeing the end of HIV in our lifetime

At the AIDS2014 conference, many scientific advancements in HIV prevention, treatment and care were reported. Save for the news about the MH17 crash, there was much to be applauded.

In just 30 years since the epidemic was first discovered and scientists scrambled to understand it, people could now dare to imagine and even speak about an AIDS-free generation. (READ: Urban boom and its bang on HIV)

In just 30 years. Shorter than one person’s lifetime.

We have the opportunity that no one thought was possible three decades ago: putting a stop to the spread of HIV.

I dare say we have the same opportunity here in the Philippines. But first, we have to make a stand and put an end to young people dying because in this day and age of HIV advancement, they simply should not be.

This is also posted on Rappler.


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