The “youth epidemic” sweeping the Philippines: Will Duterte take on the Church on HIV?

Photo: Facebook/UNAIDS Asia Pacific

As the HIV crisis in the Philippines reaches a breaking point, the government’s responses have failed to adjust to the shifting epicentre of the epidemic. Duterte can make headway on this complicated issue but he will have to deal with the Catholic Church.

By Oliver Ward

The human immunodeficiency virus (or HIV) is sweeping across the Philippines at an unprecedented rate. And in a damning  46-page report from Human Rights Watch, experts say the root of the problem is poor policy, both locally and nationally, and a widespread failure to contain the growing crisis.

HIV prevalence among men having sex with men had increased tenfold since 2011. And the Philippines has the highest rate of new infections of HIV across the Asia-Pacific region. In 2008 a patient a day was being diagnosed with the virus, but by 2016 there were 26 people diagnosed with new infections every day. As 2017 begins, officials estimate that some 55,000 HIV-positive patients could be living in the country.

Most new diagnoses are among the under-25s

Of the patients diagnosed, 62% are between 15-24 years old and 87% of infections occurred from male to male sex, meaning young men are bearing the brunt of the crisis. The National Youth Commission describes the situation as being a, “youth epidemic” as its chair Aiza Seguerra underlined, “the HIV epidemic in our country has a new face, and it is the face of a young person.”

The problem is that national education on HIV prevention does not exist, and strict laws mean that minors under the age of 18 years old are unable to buy condoms without parental consent. Marky Manlangit, diagnosed with HIV seven years ago, says when he contracted the virus there was, “zero knowledge” of it in Filipino communities. The Philippines still has the second-lowest rate of condom use in Asia.

Similarly, HIV testing is completely unavailable to people under the age of 18 unless they receive parental permission. It is these obstacles, which restrict young people’s access to contraception, that are driving the situation to the edge of a public health disaster.

There is immense shame in seeking out ways to prevent transmission

The other big issue is that attitudes in the Philippines mean many young homosexuals feel tremendous shame in being tested or buying condoms, and this gets much worse for those who test positive.  Jerson See was diagnosed at 18-years old and describes it as, “emotionally draining.” His friends said, “Hey, get away from Jerson because he is HIV positive.” Through his charity Cebu Plus, he now makes it his mission to prevent others from going through the same experiences – but this type of help is not always at hand.

In early 2015, one billion pesos (US$21 million) was cut from the Department of Health’s budget for family planning services. Without this funding, government clinics are likely to exhaust their supply of condoms next year and will be unable to distribute any preventive measures to reduce the spread of the disease.

Behind this cut in family planning funding, and the decision not to distribute and promote the use of condoms, is the influence that the Catholic Church maintains across the country’s political and social institutions. And that is a huge issue when 80% of the population describe themselves as following the faith. There is little room for opposing voices.

The Catholic Church leads opposition to HIV education and creates stigma around testing

Thanks to strong opposition to sex education in schools, again led by the church, the youth of the Philippines have neither the knowledge nor education needed to protect themselves and their partners. In fact, most public schools offer absolutely no instruction on safe sex and promote abstinence as the only form of protection.

The Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines has called HIV patients products of, “broken, dysfunctional families” creating a reluctance to get tested. For many their past involvement with the Catholic Church has only promoted an atmosphere of ignorance around the virus, and reinforced negative public attitudes towards those who suffer from it.

However, the government’s success in tackling the problem of HIV among female sex workers shows the spread of the condition can be brought under control through policy implementation and review. It just means confronting the clergy.

Duterte says he will soon introduce measures to curb the spread of the virus

Rodrigo Duterte has indicated that he is prepared to do just that. During his election campaign, he pledged to improve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights and to improve the lives of the LGBT community. He says new measures to do so will begin soon, such as the distribution of self-testing HIV kits. Also important is his universal healthcare programme, which recently had its three billion pesos (US$60 million) insurance budget for 2017 approved. This should make real progress on improving the health of the nation across the board.

With the wind of popular support in his sails, Duterte has an excellent opportunity to capitalise on the errors of previous administrations and tackle the HIV epidemic among the youth of the country. And if he is brave enough his health reforms could engrave his legacy as the president who confronted the Catholic Church on this urgent issue.

He is at a fork in the road. The path to curbing this epidemic is undoubtedly paved with confrontation, but the final destination and the life-saving shift in public attitudes would ultimately make it worth the struggle.