HIV awareness and advocacy organization LoveYourself hosted #HackingHIV as part of its launch activities to introduce PrEP, an HIV prevention method, in the Philippines. In conjunction with project PrEP Pilipinas, in-charge of introducing the innovation into the country, the event was held at Greenbelt 3’s myCinema in Makati City last 29 November.

What is PrEP?

PrEP, which stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a biomedical intervention for HIV infection in the form of a pill. The drug is a combination of Tenofovir and Emtricitabine and works by blocking HIV enzymes, preventing the virus from establishing an infection. Generally known by its brand name, “Truvada”, the pill is taken before possible exposure to HIV with a recommended dosage ranging from 100 mg Emtricitabine and 150 mg Tenofovir tablets up to 200 mg Emtricitabine and 300 mg Tenofovir tablets depending on the age and body weight of the client1.

In contrast to antiretroviral drugs that are prescribed by the doctor after confirmation of an HIV infection or vaccines that are administered to the body once or periodically, PrEP is taken on a daily basis for a sustained period of time. Intermittent intake of the drug reduces its effectiveness.

A number of clinical researches show that consistent use of PrEP lowers the risk of HIV infection up to 92% compared to those who didn’t take the pill2. It is important to note that intake of the pill must be supplemented by safe and protected sex (i.e. through the proper use of condoms and water-based lubricant) and is not a ticket to engage in unsafe sex practices.

Timeliness of PrEP in the Philippines

The Philippines stands out as a sore thumb in a global scenario of declining or plateauing rates of HIV infection. A record 819 new cases were reported by the Department of Health’s Epidemiology Bureau for October 2016, the highest monthly figure since 2014. From a rate of 9 infections daily in 2012, the figure has tripled to 26 daily infections in 2016.

Male-to-male sex ranked highest as the method of HIV transmission. However, the number of cases among females has also been increasing, concomitant to the rise of cases in mother-to-child transmission. In addition, the age group with the biggest proportion of cases has become younger, with the 25-34-year old age group comprising the majority of infections, followed by 15-24 year old group. This trend highlights the youth as most vulnerable for infections and most in need for interventions related to HIV prevention.

Behind the Scenes: PrEP Pilipinas

“We need more interventions. More than 50% of men who are having sex with men (MSMs) are not using condoms”, says Christopher M. Lagman, senior founder of LoveYourself and co-primary investigator of the PrEP Pilipinas Project as he spoke to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, otherwise known as UNAIDS, in an interview earlier this month3. In the light of the situation of condom use and the rise of HIV cases in the Philippines, introducing PrEP as an additional intervention known to further reducing one’s chances of getting infected by HIV is more than timely, with MSMs and transgenders, being sectors of the population most vulnerable to infection, as most likely to benefit from the prevention method.

PrEP Pilipinas started in 2015 as a project for investigating and PrEParing for the rollout of PrEP distribution programs in the country. With the help of funding from organizations such as The Foundation for AIDS Research, also known as amfAR, the project’s progress has then since led to #HackingHIV, a launch of the program held together with LoveYourself. Actual enrolment for the PrEP program will begin in the first quarter of 2017 through LoveYourself clinics, LoveYourself Anglo along Shaw Boulevard and LoveYourself Uni just next to Gil Puyat LRT station. The organization has also been working on the procurement of tenofovir/emtricitabine PrEP through pharmaceutical producer, Mylan India.

Another First for LoveYourself

The year 2016 has indeed been a year of beginnings for the non-profit organization, now comprised of more than 700 volunteers at the forefront of HIV awareness and advocacy in the country. Life coaching services to people living with HIV (PLHIVs) were launched at the start of the year, marking LoveYourself’s transition into a treatment hub.

Since its founding in 2011, the organization has embarked on a campaign of positivity and acceptance to fight the stigma associated with HIV. With self-worth as the overarching value of its message, LoveYourself has been encouraging everyone to get themselves tested and is inviting everyone to “dare, care, and share”.

The launch of the life coaching program is a bold step by the organization to extend its services from HIV testing to PLHIV support, further adding to the comprehensiveness of HIV-related services it is able to provide. Through its partners, the Department of Health (DOH), the Research Institute of Tropical Medicine (RITM), and Pilipinas Shell Foundation, LoveYourself is able to provide all these services for free through its clinics at LoveYourself Anglo and LoveYourself Uni.

Now, LoveYourself will be at the helm of PrEP programs in the Philippines as the chosen venue for PrEP Pilipinas’ demonstration project. PrEP will be distributed in LoveYourself clinics, augmented with counseling and HIV education. All those getting tested at the LoveYourself clinics will be given information about PrEP  in addition to the basic HIV101 modules being conducted by its counselors.

In the Frontline of the Battle

#HackingHIV was attended by representatives from social media and publications including Rappler and Team Magazine who were delighted by the wealth of information presented by the evening’s speakers. LoveYourself senior founders, Vinn Pagtakhan and Chris Lagman talked about LoveYourself’s history, initiatives, and its volunteers, as well as the different aspects and the current progress of PrEP Pilipinas, while Dr. Rosanna Ditangco, research chief of RITM AIDS Research Group (RITM-ARG), gave the audience a primer about PreP.

Dr. Gundo Weiler, country representative of the World Health Organization (WHO) also gave a talk on the current worldwide situation of HIV infections, warning that “Most MSMs in the Philippines are at risk [of getting infected by the virus].” The WHO representative also emphasized the need for “key populations to rise and take control of their own health” and those in the health sector and in HIV advocacy groups to “give the means for the population to take control of their health.”

LoveYourself and PrEP Pilipinas together with its partners in the medical field, DOH-RITM and WHO, are hoping that PreP intervention will aid in reducing the number of HIV infections in the country, and that programs aimed at distribution to and education of clients regarding proper administration of the drug will be adopted by other clinics in the country.

By pioneering PrEP and taking steps to educating and inculcating awareness to the public, LoveYourself posits itself at the frontline of the battle against HIV/AIDS in the country by adopting an innovation with the hope of lowering incidences of HIV infection.

Text and event photos by Carlos Diego A. Rozul
Additional images courtesy of Independent