Patients infected with new HIV strain develop AIDS over two years faster than those with other versions of the virus.
Manila, Philippines – Seven years ago, Marky Manlangit was diagnosed with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) that causes gradual destruction of the body’s immune system.
With “zero knowledge” about his disease and no counselling available at that time in the capital, Manila, he had nowhere to go for help. For three years, he kept his condition to himself, fearful of rejection from family and friends. Then he got sick.
“I was hospitalised and my health was deteriorating. I was forced to come out to my family about my status,” Manlangit, 32, told Al Jazeera on Sunday at a candle lighting memorial for Filipinos who died of AIDS. The event also marked the closing of the Philippines’ first national HIV testing week.
“I had a belief that they [family] would disown me. That they would not be able to accept what I have. But I was mistaken.”
Manlangit is one of the few Filipinos giving a public face to the soaring number of HIV cases in the country.
By coming out, he said, he wants to break the stigma about the disease in the predominantly Catholic and conservative country.
“I decided to take on the advocacy since I don’t want other people newly diagnosed with HIV to go through the same ordeal that I went through.”
In the last five years, HIV cases have gone up 277 percent in the Philippines. While the total number is less than one percent of the 100 million population, it continues to rise. From one reported case every three days in 2000, there are now 21 new cases recorded every day, according to the latest government report.
A separate UN study ranks the Philippines as among the seven countries with over 25 percent or more increase in HIV cases annually from 2001 to 2009, even as the worldwide trend continues to fall.
“Unlike in other parts of the world, the AIDS Epidemic in the Philippines has been growing rapidly,” the Philippine National AIDS Council said.
There have been 24,376 HIV cases in the Philippines since record-keeping started 1984, with 82 percent diagnosed in the last five years.
Danton Remoto, university professor and gay rights activist, however, said that the real number could be 10 to 20 times higher. And he attributed the underreporting to the stigma associated with the disease, particularly among the gay community, the section of the Philippine society worst hit by the disease.
“It is hard to accept. We have a lot of dreams for our kids. But let’s not judge them, but love them more,”
In at least five major cities, for instance, the HIV prevalence rate among men having sex with other men is above five percent per 100 persons. The highest is in the central Philippine city of Cebu and Manila.
“If they know that you are gay and you have HIV, you will be ridiculed,” Remoto told Al Jazeera.
“Discrimination is still strong. That’s why many are still afraid to get themselves tested.”
But one woman who is trying to defy that stereotype is Carrie Manlangit, whose son Marky had tested positive with HIV when he was only 25 years old.
“It is hard to accept. We have a lot of dreams for our kids. But let’s not judge them, but love them more,” she said addressing Filipino parents of people living with HIV, at the Sunday memorial attended by at least 300 people.
She said her son is “a gift” for his role in promoting awareness about the disease in the country. Both mother and son now volunteer for the Red Ribbon campaign advocating free HIV testing in the Philippines.
The non-government organisation also provides counselling to newly-diagnosed individuals, and information on treatment, filling the gap left by the government.
Missing Millenium Development Goals
The Philippine government had been slow in confronting the problem of HIV. According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the country will not meet the Millennium Development Goals of reversing the upward trend by the end of 2015. It also missed its 2010 goal of providing universal access to treatment for HIV patients.
To address that problem, the Department of Health has increased its budget on HIV prevention from $6.8m in 2015 to $10.2m in 2016, according to senior health minister, Vicente Belizario Jr. For the first time, the health department also launched this May a national media campaign aimed at encouraging Filipinos to get tested.
Addressing the crowd at the HIV-AIDS memorial, Belizario said that while reported cases continue to go up, it also means that awareness has improved with more people getting themselves tested, instead of hiding their condition.
Mass HIV testings
Non-government groups such as the Love Yourself campaign in Manila has also stepped in organising mass HIV testings, and opening more testing facilities in the most vulnerable areas of the Philippines capital. Every day, the organisation tests and counsels 40 to 50 individuals, according to Ronnievin Pagtakhan head of the campaign.
Still, access to help in rural areas remains limited, and in some cases, patients diagnosed with HIV had to travel to other cities to get help, according to Raine N Cortes, head of a non-government group on population and health, that is working with the Global Fund and Netherlands based HIVOS campaign.
Cortes said that only a handful of the 1,634 cities and towns in the country, have programmes related to HIV prevention. She also said that a “very low condom use and low overall knowledge” about reproductive health has contributed to Filipinos engaging in risky sexual behaviours.
It was only in 2014, when the country’s reproductive health law was given a greenlight by the Supreme Court, after it was challenged by the Catholic Church as unconstitutional. The law mandates sex education and access to artificial birth control methods, including condom use.
It also includes provisions on HIV-AIDS awareness and treatment.
Roberto Figuracion Jr, who had also tested with HIV, said that while awareness and access are important, breaking the stigma within the Filipino culture is crucial. That is why he has also decided to step out of the shadow, to prove that “it is possible to live even after an HIV diagnosis”.
“There was a time that I was very sick, counting the days not knowing if I could still live or die,” Figuracion said.
For the first three months of 2015, there were 49 reported deaths related to HIV.
“But Filipinos with HIV do not have to die, because help is available. I’m a living example of that. Let’s try to get rid of the stigma and discrimination.”