While lawmakers in the Philippines debate whether to approve a controversial bill on reproductive health, health officials have warned that new HIV infections have shot up dramatically in the past year.
In a recent report, the health department's National Epidemiology Centre (NEC) found 57 new HIV cases were reported in September — a 128 percent increase in the number of reported cases compared to the same period last year.
"While the Philippines is still considered a low-incidence country, the epidemic level could come in three years. More and more people are resorting to risky behaviour," said Dr Gerard Belimac, programme manager of the National AIDS and STI Prevention and Control Programme.
He said HIV prevalence was still concentrated in high-risk groups, like sex workers and men who have sex with men; with an infection level of below 1 percent, the disease has not become an epidemic, but UNAIDS has estimated that about 8,300 people are living with the virus.
Dr Ferchito Avelino, national coordinator of the Philippine National AIDS Council, told IRIN/PlusNews that while the country had a relatively low number of HIV cases compared with other countries, "there is no room for complacency."
He cautioned that the marked increase in new infections indicated that HIV prevention programmes were not working, and unless drastic changes took place, this trend was not likely to be reversed.
One of those drastic changes could be proposed legislation that would require government hospitals to include contraceptives in the supplies they purchase, compel local governments to employ more midwives and health attendants to achieve a ratio of one midwife to 150 deliveries, and make reproductive health education compulsory in schools. The bill would also increase HIV prevention, care and support services.
The bill has ignited a storm of controversy in this deeply conservative Roman Catholic country. In particular, church officials are opposing the promotion of artificial birth-control methods, and insist that the bill will legalise abortion and encourage promiscuity.
The Philippines, with almost 90 million people, has one of the highest population growth rates in the world.
|The earlier you engage in sex, the higher the risk|
Filipinos may have high awareness of HIV and AIDS, but they are not translating this knowledge into behaviour change, said Avelino, and misconceptions about HIV also created a false sense of security.
He called for an aggressive HIV prevention campaign, noting that the median age bracket in which Filipinos first engaged in sex was becoming younger. "The earlier you engage in sex, the higher the risk," he commented.
Belimac said it was crucial that that the government approved the bill on reproductive health, considering the recent figures on new HIV infections, as it could have a great impact on reversing the upward trend in HIV prevalence.
HIV intervention programmes were only achieving 30 percent coverage; only sex workers were fully covered by the programmes. "In order to reverse the trend, we must have 80 percent coverage," Belimac said, but a "lack of political will" was one of the main obstacles.
For instance, most local government units did not have budgets for HIV intervention programmes, indicating 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."