The Philippines is an archipelagic country located in Southeast Asia with a population of more than 100 million. According to data from the Philippine Department of Health (DOH), the Philippines has reversed the global trend of declining HIV cases, becoming the country with the fastest-growing rate of HIV in the world. From 2010 to 2021, the number of new HIV infections in the Philippines increased by 237%, while the rest of the world saw a decrease of at least 32%. In 2022, the Philippines recorded 14,970 new HIV cases, representing a 21% increase in the infection rate compared to the previous year. 

Reasons for the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Philippines

  1. Lack of HIV/AIDS knowledge and education: Many Filipinos lack access to information about HIV and birth control, and this prevents them from correctly avoiding HIV infection by practicing safe sex and properly using condoms. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 35% of people in the Philippines infected with HIV are unaware of their infection. In addition, sexual intercourse is the main way of HIV transmission in the Philippines, with 93% of infections resulting from unsafe sex. On the other hand, the Philippines has the lowest recorded rate of condom use in Asia, with only 20% to 30% among high-risk groups such as sex workers. Moreover, the Government of the Philippines has issued laws requiring parental consent for young people to buy condoms, further hindering the protection of the young group at high risk of HIV. 
  2. Unsafe injection equipment: In recent years, the Philippines has experienced an increase in incidents of drug use. According to a study that the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) conducted, the HIV infection rate among Filipinos who inject drugs is as high as 29%. This is mainly due to drug users sharing unclean injection equipment. The Dangerous Drugs Board in the Philippines identified the behaviors of individuals possessing and distributing medical devices as illegal, forcing many local public health organizations to discontinue providing safe syringes and needles for drug users. Unfortunately, the Dangerous Drug Act resulted in surges in many areas. In Cebu, for example, drug-related HIV infections jumped from less than 1% to 53% the year after the enactment of this regulation. 

On the Road

The Government of the Philippines has had mixed results in controlling HIV. On the positive side, in December 2022, the Philippine Department of Health launched the 7th AIDS Medium Term Plan (AMTP) to contribute to the global goal of ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030. With the aim of reducing the inequalities that lead to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the Philippines by 2025, the strategy will take urgent actions to provide more basic HIV services to the public, including reproductive health services, free HIV testing, treatment centers and education campaigns about HIV. On the other hand, the Philippines government has received criticism for some policies and regulations that have hampered efforts to control the spread of the disease. 

Many international development agencies and NGOs actively participate in this fight. Among these organizations are the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). These organizations continue to enhance the skills and knowledge of Filipino medical workers and improve treatment services to better serve people living with HIV. In December 2020, the United States pledged Php875 million within two years to aid HIV prevention and treatment. USAID will execute this program with the goal of assisting the Philippines government in achieving the UNAIDS 95-95-95 targets. These targets include ensuring that 95% of HIV patients are aware of their status, 95% of those individuals receive treatment and 95% of those receiving treatment attain viral suppression. Nevertheless, due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, funding for the UNAIDS response has stalled, with an expected shortfall of $8 billion which could result in a serious impact on the Asia-Pacific region, especially the Philippines. 

Looking Ahead

Efforts are underway in the Philippines to combat the alarming rise in HIV cases, with both government initiatives and support from international organizations. The launch of the 7th AIDS Medium Term Plan (AMTP) by the Philippine Department of Health demonstrates a commitment to reducing inequalities and providing crucial HIV services to the public. Additionally, international development agencies like UNAIDS and USAID are actively involved in enhancing medical workers’ skills, improving treatment services, and providing financial support. While challenges remain, these collaborative efforts offer hope for a future where the spread of HIV/AIDS is under control and the well-being of affected individuals is prioritized.

Mingjun Hou
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