Rise in New HIV Cases in Philippines Stirs Debate on Reproductive Health Bill
In the face of increasing HIV cases in the Philippines, lawmakers are debating a reproductive health bill that could have a significant impact on reversing the upward trend in new cases through HIV prevention, care and support services, IRIN/PlusNews reports (IRIN/PlusNews, 11/19). The bill would increase HIV services in the country, as well as require government hospitals to include contraceptives in the supplies they purchase and make reproductive health education mandatory in schools (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 11/14).
According to a recent report from the Department of Health's National Epidemiology Center, 57 new HIV cases were recorded in September -- a 128% increase in the number of reported cases compared with the same period last year. Gerard Belimac, program manager of the National AIDS and STI Prevention and Control Program, said, "While the Philippines is still considered a low-incidence country, the epidemic level could come in three years," adding, "More and more people are resorting to risky behavior." Belimac said that although HIV has not reached epidemic levels in the country, UNAIDS has estimated that about 8,300 people are HIV-positive. He added that new HIV cases are primarily found in high-risk groups such as commercial sex workers and men who have sex with men. Ferchito Avelino, national coordinator of the Philippine National AIDS Council, said that although Filipinos may be aware of the risk of HIV/AIDS, such knowledge is not translating into behavior change. In addition, he said that misconceptions about the virus have created a false sense of security, adding that although the country has a relatively low number of HIV cases compared with other nations, "there is no room for complacency." Avelino also called for an aggressive HIV prevention campaign, noting that the median age bracket in which Filipinos first engage in sexual activity is becoming younger.
According to Belimac, it is crucial that the government approves the bill because HIV programs are achieving 30% coverage overall and only sex workers are fully covered by the programs. Belimac said, "In order to reverse the trend, we must have 80% coverage," adding that a "lack of political will" is the main obstacle to preventing HIV transmission. For example, he said most local governments do not have budgets for HIV intervention programs, which indicates lack of commitment. "HIV prevention takes a back seat and, with their limited funds for health services, the local government units are not entirely to blame; HIV prevention competes with other health services," Belimac said (IRIN/PlusNews, 11/19).
Catholic Bishops Introduce Version of Bill
In related news, Catholic bishops in the country are drafting their own version of the reproductive health bill because of the fact that it promotes the use of contraceptives and condoms, Reuters reports. The Rev. Melvin Castro of the Episcopal Commission on Family and Life said that the bishops have been working with lawmakers to draft an alternative to the measure, given that they consider it unconstitutional and an infringement on the religious beliefs of Filipinos. About 85% of the nearly 90 million people in the Philippines are Catholic. Castro said, "We would not allow a legislation that would allocate money from a majority of the taxpayers who are Catholics to be allocated to a program which is against their beliefs." According to Reuters, some bishops have threatened to refuse Holy Communion and other sacraments to politicians who support the bill (Reuters, 11/20).