An emerging epidemic

Published: June 10, 2011

Thirty years since the discovery of AIDS, the world appears to be ready to look at the epidemic with a more optimistic lens: the death rate is going down in many parts of the world, thanks to innovation in anti-retroviral treatment, and there’s a global decline in new infections. This week, in a high-level meeting of more than 40 heads of states and ministers, the United Nations will set a new direction in the battle to eliminate HIV and AIDS. There will be the usual political wrangling and hostile debates over the next global political commitment on HIV and AIDS, especially on the issue of funding the global HIV response, but there is no denying that sense of hope prevailing among HIV and AIDS activists.

Unfortunately, that spirit of optimism will not reach Philippine shores. Citing government reports, the United Nations said that the Philippines is one of the only seven countries worldwide that diverged from the global trend: the country is experiencing a sharp rise in HIV infection, from one new infection a day in 2007 to five to six a day in 2011. The Department of Health’s official HIV registry is not showing an unusual rise in HIV deaths, but stories of deaths among young men (who had sex with men) due to AIDS-related complications are circulating within the gay, bisexual and transgendered community. These deaths, mostly a result of late diagnosis of HIV status and failure to access treatment, are increasing but remain undetected because of stigma: families of those who perished refuse to report the real cause of death.

We can only blame complacency and the lack of political leadership for the emerging HIV epidemic in the country. The government has been warned that the Philippines has all the necessary ingredients for a full-blown HIV epidemic, but authorities have taken false comfort from the fact that it has not reached the general population yet. That there is no large-scale HIV epidemic in the country is a product of our moral values, thus proclaimed former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in a statement that captures the attitude among politicians toward the virus.

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