I was reading on my news feed when I came across the statement of health activists against the PDEA agents who announced in a press conference, that one of their apprehended suspect was HIV positive. On Tuesday this week, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) arrested 11 males in a drug related raid in Taguig. Agents seized at least P387,000 worth of party drugs. Charges were filed.
As if the HIV status and public shaming of the suspect is relevant with the case.
If anything, the announcement and outing of the HIV positive only promoted stigma on persons living with HIV (PLHIV). It also reflected the ignorance of and indicated the lack of understanding on rights of PLHIV.
It also surfaced the need to review the implementation of and strengthen the Philippines AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998 or Republic Act 8504, which specifically upholds the confidentiality of the PLHIV, except in specific medical situations and if subject to a subpoena from a court. Violation of confidentiality is penalized by from six months to for years in prison as well as fines.
Health and human rights advocates are demanding for stiffer rules on confidentiality to protect the privacy of the HIV positive. For over 30 years, the HIV and AIDS pandemic killed more than 30 million people. Treatments are available but the stigma persists, making it difficult for people to get themselves tested and for the community to accept those who are living with HIV and AIDS.
The Department of Health (DOH) cited the latest data from the UNAIDS Report on global HIV epidemic states which identified the Philippines as having the “fastest growing” HIV epidemic in Asia Pacific. HIV cases in the country more than doubled from 4,300 in 2010 to 10,500 in 2016.
One could argue that there was lack of prudence but it simply showed the need to further carry on with health advocacy and education. While an HIV diagnosis is not a death sentence as it was considered before, there still exist the collective inability to understand HIV and AIDS to be able to remove the stigma.
This utter lack of information makes it impossible for individuals and community to act responsibly in not only preventing infection, but also in upholding the rights of those who are living with HIV.
Discrimination and stigma remains to be a stumbling block in defeating HIV and AIDS. While resource allocation has shifted on other health programs, laying down the framework in responding to the pandemic, including educating the public on HIV and AIDS are sidelined.
Greater investment on public health education has to be supported. Years ago, while working on a health communications program, we were surprised that Davao City was dropped as one of the priority areas for HIV and AIDS program. During that time, Davao City was already in the top three cities with high incidence on HIV and AIDS,
How to reduce the vulnerability to HIV? Sexual behavior, identity and gender are complex and need to be understood. Access to tests and treatments will make it possible to not only prolong the life of someone infected with HIV, but also help reduce the likelihood that the person will infect his or her partners.
As this incident show, government partners and service providers need to be continually educated on handling cases of PLHIVs. Proven behavior change interventions and prevention technologies will only produce positive impact if they take place in settings with social justice and human rights, free of stigma and discrimination.