Do you have to be afraid of HIV and AIDS?

Since HIV and AIDS became much publicized in the 1980s, the curiosities and controversies that it sparked never died down.  The fire spread farther following reports of Freddie Mercury, the lead vocalist of the most smashing rockstars of that era, Queen, along with a number of other well-known personalities, having been infected with HIV.

Back then, once a person is diagnosed with HIV, you can consider that as a death sentence.  These days, that is no longer the case.  I’ll tell you more about that later.

Recently, the HIV and AIDS discourse in the country has, again, become a hot topic.  National Youth Commission Chairperson Aiza Seguerra backlashes on her ‘tatay-tatayan’ (like a father), Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III about his unsupportive stance over the Administration’s plans of intensifying its Responsible Parenthood and condom distribution program in high schools nationwide.

It’s 2017: Has anything changed yet?

The situation has significantly improved.  The UNAIDS’ “Global AIDS Update” for 2016 highlights that as many as 7.5 million people with HIV were on antiretroviral treatment in 2010, while as much as 17 million were enrolled in the program in 2015.  Consequently, number of deaths due to AIDS decreased from 1.5 million to 1.1 million during the same period. More on antiretrovirals below.

There are therefore more people living with HIV who are staying productive.  Whereas there were an estimated 33.3 million people living with HIV in 2010, there were 36.7 million of them in 2015.  The number of new HIV cases is also on the decline, albeit very gradually, from 2.2 million to 2.1 million during the same period.

Can we be happy about the changes?  That can be argued since just one life lost to HIV and AIDS is not acceptable.  Although, there are at least two things we, Filipinos, can be sure  we can agree on.

First, that HIV and AIDS will continue to be debated with might by those who are seeking reforms in the manner by which our youth are educated about sex and sexuality.  We can continue arguing and they can continue becoming misguided by other people, their equally unknowledgeable peers most especially, about these matters which, naturally, they will have to learn and know anyway. Duh! It’s human nature!

Second, neither side can argue with the available data and nobody will be happy at our country’s dismal performance in attempting to stomp out HIV and AIDS.  From one new HIV case recorded every month in 2008, there were 26 up to 28 new HIV cases recorded every month in 2016.  It can be argued that the seeming rise in number of cases is, in fact, due to more people coming forward to get tested for HIV. The truth is the numbers are on the rise!

The Top 10 things about HIV and AIDS you must know by now

There is no need to panic.  There is a need for all of us to stop treating these matters as taboo so that we can all move forward.  That said, listed below are the 10 basic information about HIV and AIDS that all of us must know by now:

1.  HIV and AIDS do not mean the same.  Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that can lead to the development of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).  A person with HIV does not necessarily have AIDS.  The person infected may or may not show signs and symptoms of having HIV.  A person who has AIDS certainly has HIV.

2.  HIV does not discriminate.  Anybody who is exposed to HIV can become infected — that includes you and I.  So, please, stop the urban legend about many call center agents becoming infected with HIV because it is not any occupation that puts people at higher risk for acquiring HIV. What we should all be worried about is that it is the young people between the most productive ages of 15 and 34 who are suffering from this condition.  Youth, 15-24 years old, comprise one-fourth of all registered cases from 1984 up to October 2016.  People belonging to these age brackets often have young children to raise and retired parents to support.  Who takes care of them and their families when they experience discrimination at work?

3.  For HIV to successfully infect another person, two conditions need to be fulfilled.  First, the infectious fluid has to contain sufficient viral load (think of it as the concentration of HIV), and second, the virus has to have a way of entering the bloodstream.  Infectious body fluids include blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breastmilk.  That means, you cannot get HIV from getting into contact with an infected person’s saliva. That holds true for kissing as well, provided that the person who is not infected and the person who is infected do not have open sores.  Otherwise, open sores will allow for blood to be exchanged to enter the bloodstream of the uninfected partner.

4.  HIV can only be transmitted via exchange of infected blood, unprotected penetrative sex, and from infected parent to the child.  The two modes of highest risk for exchange of infected blood to happen are via blood transfusion of blood units that are not screened for HIV (all blood units in the Philippines are typically screened for HIV), and by sharing infected needles most especially those used for injecting illegal drugs.  That said, injecting drug users must not only be concerned about “Oplan Tukhang” but also of unhygienic needle use.

When it comes to sex, there are various levels of risks involved.  Sexual activities considered to be at higher risk for enabling HIV infection of the uninfected partner include: vaginal sex without a condom, anal sex without a condom and oral sex without a condom.  Lower risk include the same activities but with the use of a condom.  That means, a condom will not give you 100 per cent protection from HIV infection but the protection it brings can significantly lower your risk for HIV.  That’s because there are many behavioral factors that affect proper condom use, for instance, reusing it and wearing it incorrectly.

A child can get infected while inside her mother’s womb or when fed with the breastmilk from an infected source.  However, a child born of an infected parent does not necessarily get infected with HIV, most especially when the mother is placed on ART during pregnancy and after childbirth. Surgery rather than normal delivery is also preferred to reduce the risk of the baby from becoming infected.

5.  Being married and monogamous do not ensure that you cannot get infected with HIV.  The true requirement is that you and your partner have to be mutually monogamous.  In addition, prior to that, both of you should have already received a negative HIV test result before you started having sex with each other.

6.  Only an HIV test can show if a person has HIV or not.  You can get yourself tested for HIV at any private or public hospital, diagnostic clinic or social hygiene clinic.  You must know that there is a six-month window period that has to be observed for your result to be considered valid.  That’s because it takes up to six months after your last possible exposure to HIV (such as unprotected sex) before a sufficient viral load of HIV in your bloodstream can be detected by the HIV test.

If you decide to go in for an HIV test, you will be required to undergo a pre-test and post-test counselling session where you can ask your counsellor of any possible question you have about HIV and AIDS.

7.  In the Philippines, all HIV tests are confidential. Violation of confidentiality is penalized by the law, and more specifically by Republic Act 8504. Therefore, if you have access to such confidential information, such as if you are a health practitioner, hospital staff, HR officer or company physician, you must exercise caution in sharing this information even on a need-to-know basis.

8.  HIV testing is non-compulsory in the Philippines.  That means, you will always have to consent to HIV testing.  No person or entity, including your employer, has the right to require you to undergo an HIV test.  If you encounter such illegal practice, feel free to refuse and report the violation to authorities.

Other than being prohibited by RA 8504, the Department of Labor and Employment also prohibits such testing, including discrimination of employees from work on the basis of his or her real or perceived HIV status.

For Overseas Filipino Workers, however, HIV testing can become trickier. There are still many countries that require a negative HIV test result for people to be allowed entry to their countries. In which case, these are beyond the extent of applicability of our laws.

Click here for a directory of institutions that can help you find out more about HIV and AIDS, get an HIV test, and how to access related information and services.

9.  HIV is a lifelong condition and cannot be cured.  A person who has been diagnosed with HIV needs to be on antiretroviral therapy (ART). It is not a cure rather, it is a recommended regimen that consists of drugs formulated to keep the HIV viral load low so that the person infected does not develop AIDS and can continue to become economically productive.

In addition, there are health services specifically provided for free for people with HIV.

A person who is diagnosed to be positive for HIV has the right to access proper treatment, care and support.

10.  There is no reason why you should stigmatize nor discriminate people with HIV.  HIV transmission requires intimate relationships.  That means, you cannot get HIV by sharing a toilet seat, using the same utensils, getting assigned on the same table as a person with HIV.  You can shake hands, casually kiss them on the cheeks and embrace them without any need to be afraid of getting infected.

Your personal commitment

Now that you know, tell at least one person about what you learned here or, if you’re too shy to talk about it, share the link to this page and ask the people you love to read this.

Did you find this article useful? Do you have any questions or suggestions? Leave your comment below.

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