In commemoration of the World AIDS Day observed every 1st of December, Senator Risa Hontiveros, head of the Committee on Health and Demography, partnered with LoveYourself last November 29 in spearheading an HIV Testing campaign for the employees of the Senate of the Philippines. Together with the help of the Pasay City Social Hygiene Clinic, the testing was conducted from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM at the Jose P. Laurel Hall.

Hontiveros recognizes the need to decrease, if not obliterate, discrimination and increase the level of health consciousness and solidarity in the general public1. With aims to raise awareness about the disease and emphasize the importance of early detection, this partnership between LoveYourself and the senate is a good leap towards the battle against HIV.

The Senate for the Youth

Senator Hontiveros voiced out her concern for the youth and emphasized that they are now part of the key affected population of the HIV epidemic. “This is highly important for our youth because they are at the forefront of the vulnerable key affected population”, said the Senator.  (Higit na mahalaga ito para sa ating mga kabataan dahil yung atin pong mga young Filipinos ay nasa forefront ng vulnerable [na] bahagi ng ating populasyon.) This can be reflected in the latest data from DOH where 27% of the newly reported cases of persons infected with HIV are youth aged 15-24 years2.

With the latest trend that the large portion of the newly diagnosed cases has become younger, there has been notions to lower the age limit of individuals undergoing voluntary HIV testing. Once approved, individuals, as young as 15, will be allowed to undergo voluntary HIV testing without the need to secure his or her parent’s consent. This, coupled with counseling and early treatment will open a lot of opportunities in the battle against HIV.

Pushing for Improvements

A public hearing at the senate on the same day was conducted for the bills filed seeking to amend R.A. 8504, otherwise known as the Philippines AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998. As per Hontiveros’ opening remarks during the senate hearing, there is a growing consensus among policy makers, program implementers and advocates that the R.A. 8504 “will not deliver an end to the HIV epidemic in the country.” The government’s response and initiatives are still based on a legal framework from the past where HIV cases were still low3 and HIV was considered as a terminal condition.

Back in 1998, the number of reported cases of people living with HIV is at 189, which is a far cry from the 7,756 reported cases by the end of the third quarter of 2016, which affirms that a lot has already changed, and that the provisions of the current law may no longer be applicable to modern-day situations. There are now modern pharmacological advances and HIV prevention approaches available that we could benefit from which were not yet available during the time of the passage of the said bill.

As stated by Hontiveros, all five bills filed this year seeking to repeal R.A. 8504 have a lot of commonalities. The proposed amendments highlight the need to reinforce the existing mechanisms of the government in suppressing the HIV epidemic, with strong considerations in the observance of human rights, abating discrimination, eradicating stigma and uplifting the welfare of the community, especially the key affected population.

Another First For LoveYourself

Being the first advocacy organization to have been invited by the current administration to conduct testing at the Senate, the event is a milestone for LoveYourself as an organization and an honorable recognition of the efforts it has made over the past few years. Last December 12, the organization’s founder, Vinn Pagtakhan, was awarded as one of the country’s Ten Outstanding Young Men and Women (TOYM) for founding an organization leading the fight against the HIV crisis.

The non-government organization comprised of volunteers has steadily made its mark as the leading HIV advocacy group in the country. Earlier this year, it has expanded its range of services from HIV testing to include life coaching and PLHIVs4. Furthermore, it has launched a unique line of service centered on counseling for couples, known as LoveYourself Purple. Finally, in partnership with PrEP Pilipinas, LoveYourself will be the pioneers of PrEP, a revolutionary intervention method for preventing the spread of HIV[5], administration of which will be carried out through its two clinics, Anglo and Uni.

Text and photo by Mark de Castro