Philippines must stop the rise of Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome now

December 13, 2018

Last Dec. 1 was World AIDS Day which came and went by with no news of something eagerly awaited – a new law to boost the fight against a dreaded disease in the Philippines where its spread is deemed one of the most explosive worldwide, with around 32 Filipinos diagnosed daily.

With the current trend and no highly effective steps to counter it, the Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC) estimates that by 2030, the number of Filipinos living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS) will reach a staggering 265,900 or more than a quarter of a million people in the country.

Amid the grim forecast, many wonder: How come President Duterte hasn’t yet signed into law the proposed HIV/AIDS Policy Act to deal with the growing epidemic? The measure has already passed bicameral scrutiny and was ratified by Congress before going into recess last October.

“The Philippines made a significant milestone when the Senate and the House of Representatives ratified the Bicameral Conference Committee Report on the bill which aims to strengthen the existing policy on HIV/AIDS prevention in the country,” then Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque even said. “We can look forward to a society that is empowered to prevent, not only the spread of the disease but also the stigma that comes with it.”

Yet, more than two months have passed and there’s still no sign the ratified measure will become law. It’s supposed to amend RA 8504 or the Philippine National AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998. Many legislators were even expecting the new law would be enacted in time for World AIDS Day.

RA 8504, crafted two decades ago when HIV/AIDS cases were not yet of alarming proportions, is now deemed severely inadequate. “It’s like using a small bucket to put out a raging fire,” as one put it.

“The law’s prevention measures are too granular in some areas and designed for a generalized epidemic, but not concentrated epidemics,” HIV and LGBT rights advocate Jonas Bagas said of RA 8504. “It has good human rights provisions for people living with HIV (PLHIV), but lacks the teeth to enforce them. It has a messy governance structure, which is muddled further by decentralization and devolution.”

He said the one awaiting the President’s signature “is a progressive measure that will upgrade the Philippine response to the epidemic.”

“It clarifies the roles and mandates of various government agencies and institutionalizes the country’s national strategic plan to fight HIV, which lays down multiyear strategies and interventions to reverse the epidemic. It has a comprehensive provision on primary prevention, and gives the country the latitude to pursue evidence-based interventions to prevent the spread of HIV,” he explained.

The measure “guarantees access to HIV treatment and ensures free HIV medicines, including medicines to treat HIV-related infections” and also “integrates HIV services into the country’s universal health coverage framework, including PhilHealth.”

“It removes barriers to HIV services, such as age-related restriction to HIV testing and discrimination in healthcare settings,” Bagas said. “Finally, it has an appropriation provision, and identifies sources of funding for HIV programs, a vital reform in light of declining donor support for HIV and other health programs for middle-income countries like the Philippines.”

The urgent need to enact a new law is of paramount importance in light of a pronouncement from the Department of Health that – amid a generally downward global trend – the Philippines has “one of the fastest growing HIV epidemics in the world with 57,134 cases recorded from January 1984 to July 2018.”

PNAC director Dr. Joselito Feliciano said the number of Filipinos diagnosed with HIV/AIDS every day, now pegged at 32, is “in stark contrast to the 2 new cases reported daily in 2008, 13 in 2013, and 22 in 2015.” Clearly, the alarming epidemic must be stopped now.