MANILA — This situation is extremely concerning.
In the past, we used to hold our youth as the nation’s beacon of hope. However, where can we find that hope when the lives of 15 to 17-year-old adolescents in our country are being devastated by the incurable HIV-AIDS virus?
According to a recent report by Unicef, the Philippines has experienced a staggering 78 percent increase in HIV-AIDS cases among teenagers aged 15 to 17 between 2019 and 2023. This alarming statistic has prompted the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) to urge Filipino leaders to intensify their response to the HIV-AIDS crisis.
Unicef acknowledges the efforts of the Department of Health (DOH) in preventing the spread of the infection through various approaches such as pre-exposure prophylaxis, decentralized HIV testing, and the provision of new antiretroviral drugs that enhance treatment outcomes and compliance.
However, challenges related to procurement and supply have made it difficult for individuals living with HIV to access treatment.
The supply of free antiretroviral drugs from foreign non-governmental organizations is diminishing, and the government, which is still grappling with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, faces numerous other pressing health issues.
Unicef also recommends revising the proxy consent protocol to allow young people to undergo HIV testing without parental consent. Unrestricted access to testing can save lives by ensuring immediate enrollment in treatment and appropriate care, as stated by Unicef.
While the age for testing without parental consent has been lowered to 15 years old, consent is still required for other services, including treatment. This barrier may prevent other young individuals living with HIV from seeking the treatment they need.
Unicef emphasizes the need for a coherent Philippine AIDS program that addresses the specific challenges faced by young people in terms of age, as well as the development of suitable and gender-responsive information and service uptake.
Collaboration among the Committee on Children on HIV and AIDS, the Council for the Welfare of Children, and the Philippine National AIDS Council is necessary to engage young people in designing a program that caters to their needs. This can be achieved through targeted communication that resonates with young individuals, using social media platforms or apps they frequently use.
Dr. Louie Ocampo, the country director of UNAIDS, emphasizes that no one should die from AIDS-related causes, given the availability of advanced treatment regimens. However, many people living with HIV, particularly young individuals, are unaware of the possibility of treatment or fail to receive it in a timely manner, resulting in the destruction of their immune systems by the virus.
These preventable deaths are unacceptable. Ocampo calls upon the government to increase testing and treatment efforts promptly by addressing barriers to accessing HIV services, eliminating stigma and discrimination, institutionalizing comprehensive sexuality education, implementing innovative approaches to reach key populations, increasing investments in prevention and social support services, and demonstrating strong political will to protect the most vulnerable and stigmatized sectors of society.
Since 1984, a total of 110,736 HIV cases have been reported nationwide, with 6,383 recorded deaths. Alarmingly, 90 percent of the new infections have occurred among young males who engage in sexual activities with other males. If this trend continues, the number of HIV cases is projected to surpass 330,000 by 2030.
The latest data clearly indicate that more must be done to raise awareness of HIV among young people. A study conducted by the University of the Philippines reveals a decline in youth awareness of HIV/AIDS.
According to the 2021 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study (YAFS5), 76 percent of young individuals in the Philippines aged 15 to 24 were aware of HIV and/or AIDS. This represents a significant decrease of 19 percentage points from 1994 when the awareness rate stood at 95 percent.
Out of every five young people, only 19 percent possessed comprehensive knowledge about HIV. Astonishingly, 52 percent held the incorrect belief that HIV can be transmitted by sharing food with an infected person. Additionally, approximately 2 out of 5 young individuals did not believe that a seemingly healthy person could have HIV.
Another concerning finding was that 35 percent of young people did not believe that condom use during sexual intercourse could reduce the risk of contracting HIV. This contradicts multiple evidence that consistently using condoms is effective in preventing HIV transmission. Data also indicates a low level of condom usage during high-risk sexual activities, such as transactional and casual sex, particularly among male youths.
These information gaps pose significant challenges in the efforts to combat the rising number of HIV infections in the Philippines, which currently has the fastest-growing HIV epidemic in the Asia-Pacific region. As the youth are often regarded as the nation’s hope, it is disheartening to witness their potential being compromised by a virus that still lacks a cure. (AI/MTVN)