I visited a local pregnancy center last week, Glory Reborn, as part of a Peace Corps secondary project. It is a faith based birthing center providing free services for pregnant women in the community, and they have expanded their services to include free HIV/AIDS testing for all individuals. The founder of the clinic, Hilary, started the center 12 years ago and is currently serving on the board for HIV/AIDS here in Cebu to improve prevention efforts and medical treatments. We chatted for a while about a few projects she has in mind, and were able to talk about some of the issues concerning HIV/AIDS here in the Philippines and Cebu.
The Philippines is only 1 of 7 countries in the world where HIV/AIDS is on the rise, and last year the rates of infected individuals rose 25%! In the Philippines the spread of HIV is most dominantly through men having sex with men; however Hilary informed me that here in Cebu the rate increase is due to intravenous drug use. Hilary explained that once an individual is tested positive they have to send a sample to Manila for verification and the individual has to be registered in a national database before they can receive the needed medication. Unfortunately, many people who test positive never come back for follow-ups and are thus never registered in the database. This has multiple implications. One being that the individuals never receive the needed medications; two being that the Philippines is able to keep their numbers low in national/international reports. Both of these have negative results, for example, Hilary discussed how people are not willing to grant funds to combat HIV/AIDS in the Philippines because of the low numbers.
Another issue affecting those with HIV/AIDS is the distribution of medicine and needed treatments. Cebu is located in Region 7 of the Philippines, which includes 3.5 different islands, with Cebu City as the only location in this Region where they distribute medication – another reason for the lack of follow-up appointments, which needs to be addressed. Hilary mentioned that the Philippines continues to push initiatives for HIV/AIDS prevention, but considering the rising numbers of HIV positive individuals the focus also needs to be on treatment. Glory Reborn has found through their community outreach projects that many teenage street children have already had more than five sexual partners and are unaware of safe sexual practices and family planning, showing the absolute need for continued prevention outreach. However, prevention is no longer the only major concern. Increased treatment programs and medical distribution centers are becoming a major need.
Several weeks ago an article was printed in the PhilStar (a Filipino newspaper) titled: “HIV/AIDS: Stemming the Rising Tide.” The reporter states:
“Just as the poor find their voices excluded from policy-making, so it is with the populations most at-risk for HIV/AIDS. The poor, to be sure, are woefully in the dark about how HIV infection spreads… Looking at the data on working-class youth, we can see gaps in information, health options and especially policy influence. As a result, those infected with HIV/AIDS come to be stigmatized rather than cared for. Moral condemnation, however, has never been known to cure a disease, much less contain a pandemic.”
The article goes on to describe policies in place to promote prevention but these policies often overlook those in most need, such as out-of-school youth. Another problem is the extremely low percentage of the population who is actually getting tested due to discrimination, privacy concerns, and cost. All of these issues compound when talking of commercial sex workers who are already poor, stigmatized, discriminated against, and oftentimes lack basic education. The reporter ends the article with this: “We must find ways not only to confront the spread of a disease that–it bears emphasizing–affects everyone. We must also seek to discard the deadly attitudes of homophobia and sexism that fall disproportionately, as with all modes of discrimination, on the poor. Then and only then can we properly address and stem the rising tide of HIV/AIDS.”
Discrimination and stigma have many negative affects in society, one of the worst being the continued spread of epidemics, diseases, and deaths. Lack of education and the spread of incorrect information contribute to both discrimination and disease, and only after increased educational efforts can either of these be changed for the better. Stigmas endanger individuals for many reasons; let us be a voice of love and support, instead of judgement, to help eradicate discrimination and preventable diseases.