RITM, UPLB give face to HIV/AIDS

(L-R) Head of ARG-RITM Dr. Rosanna Ditangco, HIV advocate Billy Santo, International Health Expert from UP Open University and Philippine Women’s University Professor Satwinder Rehal, and President of ASEAN Student Council Union Derrick Ordoñez address the students’ concerns regarding HIV/AIDS.

The complexity of the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS is yet to be implored although not without effort. Sadly, stigma reduction efforts fall short on the many HIV/AIDS program being implemented in the Philippines. At the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB), students of the College of Development Communication (CDC) with the AIDS Research Group (ARG) of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), took one step closer in discovering HIV/AIDS beyond the tip of the iceberg.

Hi V! Gusto Kitang Makilala: A Forum on HIV/AIDS and the Filipino Youth was conducted on May 3, 2017 at the DL Umali Hall with the goal of giving face to one of the most stigmatized infectious diseases in the country.

“This is a bold first step we are all taking, not just for ourselves, but to all those who are deeply affected by this issue. We titled this forum, ‘Hi V! Gusto Kita Makilala’ not to trivialize the HIV/AIDS issue confronting the youth today but to give it a human face,” underscored Assistant Professor and forum organizer from UPLB-CDC.

According to the Department of Health, Region IV-A has the second highest share of HIV cases in the Philippines. It is therefore a very apt decision for RITM-ARG to host the second leg of its university caravan about the HIV/AIDS issue in the region.

Students from all over the region discussed and raised questions to the panelists: Head of ARG-RITM Dr. Rosanna Ditangco, International Health Expert from UP Open University and Philippine Women’s University Professor Satwinder Rehal, and President of ASEAN Student Council Union Derrick Ordoñez.

Touching five key themes about HIV/AIDS issue, the discussion revolved around Awareness & Risky Behavior, Treatment, Stigma, Lifestyle & Support from Social Institutions, and Self-worth.

Representatives from the Project Red Ribbon, an HIV and AIDS advocacy foundation, also conducted a free confidential HIV Testing.

On awareness and risky behavior

Prof. Rehal, International Health Expert from UP Open University and Philippine Women’s Health, emphasized that although it is different in every country, the youth shares the same pattern when it comes to risky behaviour. With sex being openly available nowadays, Prof. Rehal noted that sex has become more of a stress reliever than a romantic endeavor between partners.

He also talked about the ‘OFW Phenomena’ which make it so that a lot of youth are left on their own leading to increase in risky behavior. Without proper guidance and open communication between children and parents, the youth tend to venture toward the so-called ‘hook-up culture.’

Mr. Ordoñez then pointed out the role that social media dating apps play on awareness and risky behavior. Although it has become a norm nowadays, Mr. Ordoñez emphasized that “the youth can still be responsible when using those social media dating apps. We should make informed decisions.”

Furthermore, the forum also tackled the attitude of youth on the use of contraceptives. Dr. Ditangco pointed out that the majority of transmission happened during unplanned sex. Prof. Rehal added that “safe sex is not just the physical sex, but also its effect toward the emotional and mental state of a person.”

On testing positive and getting treatment

“Testing is a win-win situation,” said Dr. Ditangco. She explained that most people still want to learn it the hard way and refuse getting tested. Dr. Ditangco added that RITM clinics accommodate minors who want to get tested.

Although HIV/AIDS has no cure yet, Dr. Ditangco said people can still take lifetime medication as treatment. But then, she said, people can make the choice to avoid it by making the right choice. “If you are not ready for a mature relationship, then don’t do it [sex].”

“Is it love or hormones?” asked Dr. Ditangco. She said HIV is not an issue if there is truly love involved. She then touched in on the issue of monogamy and polygamy. Dr. Ditangco said that being your partner’s only lover, does not guarantee that one will not test positive for HIV AIDS. “Polygamy can be sequential,” noted Dr. Ditangco.

Prof. Rehal then furthered the discussion by pointing out three factors that affect people’s decision of getting treatment. According to Prof. Rehal, because of society’s tendency to stigmatize HIV/AIDS as an ‘immoral disease,’ people, most especially the youth finds it hard to get treatment or even get tested. He also said that the location of facilities or clinics and people’s attitude towards HIV/AIDS affects people’s decision to get treatment.

On stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS

The stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS continues to be one of the main reasons why people living with the disease are being denied of proper health services. In a recent article from Huffington Post, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé talked about the importance of overcoming the “stigma, shame, distrust, discrimination and apathy” that people associate with HIV/AIDS.

In the past, the fear surrounding HIV/AIDS is founded on the lack of information about its transmission. One of the activities conducted during the forum was a discussion on fact versus myth when it comes to HIV/AIDS. The audience were shown five statements, in which they have to raise either a red piece of paper if they disagree and a white one if they agree. The panellists then shared their expertise about each statement.

“It is possible for someone with HIV to live as long as someone who is not HIV positive,” explained Dr. Ditangco. With the proper treatment, she said it is possible and that he/she may also be able to get a job. Although, Dr. Ditangco also cautioned that there are some companies abroad such as the Middle East, Singapore, and Malaysia, among others that do not accept HIV-positive immigrant workers.

She also explained that it is possible for a mother who is HIV-positive to have an HIV-free child. On the other hand, Prof. Rehal pointed out that gay people are not necessarily more prone to HIV infection. He said it still depends on the type of risky behavior that one experiences. Mr. Ordoñez seconded Prof. Rehal’s statement by saying that “gender does not dictate a person’s susceptibility to HIV/AIDS.”

Dr. Ditangco further explained that “anal sex poses a higher risk because of trauma. It makes it easier for the virus to enter the body.”

On lifestyle support from social institutions

As she addressed the youth, Dr. Ditangco urged them to be smart and to not engage on casual and unplanned sex. She advised the audience, most of which are students of UPLB and colleges from Calamba, to have self-control, discipline, and self-love.

At the family level, Prof. Rehal noted that “we need to first open up about the topic of sexuality.” He also pointed out the important role that media plays toward the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDs. He said the youth can act out as a bridge between the older and younger generation as a peer generator.

Mr. Ordoñez urged the youth “not to be afraid of medical experts and to seek medical advice.” On a final note, he said that the youth should inspire and influence other people to take a stand on HIV/AIDS.

On self-worth and acceptance

As the forum come to a close, everyone inside the venue were awed and inspired as “V” himself took a stand on-stage.

V said he had a difficult childhood and did everything to survive so that he can go to school. “I wanted to be somebody, someday.”

V then shared that he was stigmatized by society and his family disowned him when they found out that he is HIV-positive.

At 23 years old, V said he almost wanted to give up, but his doctors gave him hope and urged him to be strong and survive. Despite other people seeing him in bad light, V said he wants others to know that “I’m okay. I’m still human and that I can still be happy.”

V said HIV can be manageable. He said people with HIV should not be deprived of treatment. At present, V said he is working for a social hygiene clinic because he wants to inspire and educate others. “As long as we are educated, we can beat HIV,” urged V.

As he faced the audience head on, V said that people with HIV need to help themselves first before they can allow anyone to help them. He said, “I may have this virus, but I have not lost my humanity.”

by Ma. Patricia Lansang and Allenor Enciso