MANILA – As people across the globe marked World AIDS Day on Friday, authorities and health organizations in Philippines struggle to contain the dramatic spread of the human immunodeficiency virus, particularly among the country’s homosexual and transgender communities.
“It is the most alarming epidemic in the Asia and Pacific region, and, at the moment, we are not seeing a sufficient response to resolve it,” Eamonn Murphy, Regional Director at the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), the UN agency engaged in the fight against the illness, told EFE.
Around 10,500 Filipinos were diagnosed with HIV last year, compared to the 147 new cases registered in 2001.
The rate of the spread of HIV has increased 37-fold in the last 15 years, to a total of 56,000 people who are infected with the virus, almost all of whom have been infected in the last six years.
The virus has grown at an alarming annual rate of 143 percent, according to the data of the Philippine Department of Health.
93 percent of new cases in 2016 were men who had sex with other men or transgenders, according to a UN report on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, issued on Friday to coincide with the annual World AIDS Day.
This year’s theme focuses on the impact of the HIV virus, which affects 36.7 million people around the world.
While HIV infection cases are on the decline in other countries due to successful prevention and treatment programs, the Philippines has seen a dramatic increase, due in part to the inability of the authorities to implement an effective solution.
“Although the epidemic affects young men, the responses have been very generalized, targeting all types of populations. It is essential to redirect prevention and treatment services, particularly to young men who have sex with other men,” he said.
According to UNAIDS, other problems in tackling HIV in the country are the criminalization of prostitution and the relatively difficult access to condoms, not only due to their high price but also due to the lack of privacy for the buyer.
“To buy condoms I have to go outside the neighborhood, as here everyone knows me and I can’t ask for them at the pharmacy counter or the shop,” said 23-year-old P.D.H, a resident of Manila, where unlike in other Asian capital cities, there are no condom vending machines.
In early 2017, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte issued an executive order to promote sex education and the distribution of condoms in schools, but the order has yet to be fully implemented due to opposition from influential bishops and conservative politicians.
The Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act, which calls for an emergency plan to tackle the spread of the virus and protect the rights of HIV carriers, is still pending approval.