AIDS OF SPADES: Unraveling the Power of Knowledge and Acceptance on HIV and AIDs Awareness

Written by Hans Noble and James Edward Tambobong

While there are available vaccines and trials for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) to alleviate the increasing number of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDs) patients, there is no remedy yet that can treat the looming stigma in the country. This posits that while there is a fight to lessen if not end the HIV and AIDs cases in the Philippines, there is an attached societal disease that needs to be treated similarly.

In 1984, the Philippines stood in apprehension by the first ever recorded Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) - Acute Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDs) case in the country. For the subsequent decades, the morbid experiences of infected individuals have haunted the populace into fears of wallowing in mournful states similar to theirs, thereby pushing people to abhor testing and discourses about sexual health.

With the increasing prominence of HIV/AIDS cases in national health, there's a growing sense of shame and secrecy. This goes against modern health standards, including recommendations from organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO). Efforts for inclusivity and information sharing are ongoing, but challenges and doubts about the nation's perception of AIDS persist.

Sexual taboos diminish discussions as stereotypes have influenced Filipinos' understanding of sexual issues and reproductive health for generations. Knowledge about AIDS has been present in the country for almost 40 years, but a significant portion of the population lacks even a trivial understanding of how HIV affects the body, leading to AIDS. Information dissemination, led by agencies like the Department of Health (DOH), has always been the plan, aiming for a widespread awareness campaign.

Worse, as of 2021, only 76 percent of 15 to 24-year-olds have an awareness of HIV and AIDs according to the University of the Philippines Population Institute (UPPI). Coupled with a confounding rise in teenage pregnancies - testifying the increment of unprotected sex - it is not far from being declared as a state of emergency.

Demographically speaking, the intermittently developing multi-gender inclusivity was somehow revolutionary. By embracing the values and beliefs of same-sex couples, the country needed a step up from the conventional and a rewording of sex education in their consideration. With so many intellectual supplications and emanation of health advocates, Filipinos seemed to be no longer fledglings in safe-keeping from HIV contraction. Or is it the case?

HIV Stories

HIV-infected people have transformed from being forlorn of society into individuals of marvels in terms of how they live with such a debilitating disease. As much as the bigger picture presents them as constant beneficiaries of global and national efforts, the details of their daily ordeals say otherwise. According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), 71.2 % of women aged 15 - 49 have reported varied forms of discrimination against infected people. Akin to icebergs, there is truly much more than meets the eye - and the phenomena under the light of sight are possibly contradictory to what advocates are languishing for.

By an international projection, the country may record an alarming number of 364,000 people living with HIV (PLHIV) in 2030. Just as this number admonishes the horrid impact of morbidities, delving into the individual stories of these people just shows how knowledge and understanding should always be present to debunk conspiracies and break stigmas.

The residues of primal impressions towards PLHIVs reverberate across the disease’s founding history since the early 1980s. When the disorder was first discovered in 1981 in Los Angeles among homosexual men, it was known as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). The coined terminologies would have already appalled gender advocates and patrons of contemporary views on equality. What seems to be “homophobic and discriminating,” was reflective of how PLHIV were pre-entitled as people of unconventional genders.

As a result, stereotyping precipitated into struggling innocence, thereby causing the rise of elusive victims unwilling to devote their fate to early treatment. Even notable people had to embrace being secretive. Among the figures was Freddie Mercury of Queen, who happened to have suffered from this deadly disease when Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) and other abating treatments were sparse and under investigation. Having experienced the unsettling discrimination and being put on the hot seat, he decided to be silent at first. Nevertheless, he became one of the key persons who did not just battle the disease alone, but even advocate for it when he did a Live Aid Concert back in 1985.

It's easier for famous people to go from avoiding a topic to supporting it, but regular citizens, especially those dealing with poverty, might find it challenging. Concerns about HIV testing could turn into expected social judgment. Universities and workplaces wisely prioritize programs, using enticing methods. Organizers offer items like condoms, clothing, and food in exchange for HIV testing. Despite flashy encouragement, many still feel a lingering fear.

Determinants of this perceived anxiety may be a cumulative consequence of past trauma or interactions with disillusioned victims sharing their hopelessness. As witnessed in a multitude of HIV/AIDs stories, the initial stages of disease acceptance might devour a person’s morale thereby heralding distress and haphazardous impulses. Hence many opt to transmit the virus sexually to gain “co-victims” - a practice that further exacerbates the exponential growth of infected cases, both reported and unreported.

Although unethical and intrusive to human rights, these attitudes ought not to be generalized to victims. More so, what induces jaundice is apathy in a manner that detests the true roots of such attitudes. A dismantled societal expectation towards them is what forces even healthy people to undergo a personal health assessment. But as Princess Diana of Wales commiserated:

“HIV does not make people dangerous to know. You can shake their hands and hug them. Heaven knows they need it,” she uttered. “What's more, you can share their homes, their workplaces, and their playgrounds and toys.”

Being in the spotlight due to her royal status, it did not bother her when she did a simple, but impactful thing that made her talk of the town. Princess Diana, with so many people living in dread of HIV/AIDS, embraced patients and shook hands without gloves was a pivotal moment in dismantling stigma.

Combating Ignorance

Being apprehensive about obtaining knowledge in this century might be the biggest mistake a person could ever make. The power of the advances in science and technology nowadays ensures the quality and science-based trials to mitigate the alarming and detrimental effects of common diseases and to aid ignorance among individuals about their holistic health. Breaking stigmas about this, especially on AIDS must not be overlooked within the constantly adjusting society we live in.

Tracing the simplest misunderstandings is pivotal to addressing the lack of faith people have in professional HIV testing and other similar programs. Many are condescended by the comprehensive nature of the testing process tied to the complexities embedded in the genetic interactions between the virus and the testing technology. Oblivious of the fact that a simple swab or finger prick may yield results in just 20 minutes, some attitudinize anxiety or show off false hectic schedules for the sake of avoidance. The possibility of being positive presses rocketing tension with clients entertaining the most dreadful forethought. All these are mediated by inadequate background knowledge about how and why infection occurs. Moreover, people are conditioned by the perpetual pressure of society which delivers radical generalizations against the supposed confidentiality of health documents.

The Philippine AIDs Law, Republic Act 8504 clearly states that the State should “ensure access to HIV and AIDs-related services by eliminating the climate of stigma and discrimination that surrounds the country’s HIV and AIDs situation, and the people directly and indirectly affected by it.”

According to the journal issue of Acta Medica Philippina, Dr. De Los Santos and her colleagues investigate how stigma associated with healthcare facilities affects PLHIV-seeking care in the Philippines. They find that an unacceptable 81% percentage of their Filipino PLHIV respondents experienced stigma. They pinpoint the facilities that are most likely to be associated with stigma and offer recommendations for how to address the issue.

There are factors and challenges in HIV prevention that become another dilemma faced by patients all over the country wherein many people do not receive ongoing care and treatment. HIV treatment can significantly reduce an individual's risk of HIV transmission to others by reducing the amount of virus in their body.

Some challenges were low economic status, poor access to healthcare, and limited resources for HIV/AIDS prevention. Poverty-stricken people are more likely to have adverse environmental factors and socioeconomic disparities that exacerbate illness. Due to their limited access to healthcare, these communities are more likely to experience unfavorable health outcomes.

Cease Disease

Societal attitudes strongly impact efforts to address HIV/AIDS, making it challenging to correct misconceptions. The influence on public perception isn't solely based on individual choices but also involves contributions from government elites. Key entities like hospitals and testing centers in Legazpi City, Albay, specifically Legazpi Social Hygiene Clinic and Bicol Regional Health and Medical Center, play crucial roles. Government support has enhanced surveillance capabilities in high-level institutions, prioritizing tools and training for professionals over the profit motive in HIV testing. Despite successful programs offering free testing at local universities, overcoming reluctance remains a challenge. The perception of AIDS as incurable adds to the difficulties, affecting hope among victims and at-risk individuals.

To better prevent HIV and HIV-related mortality, researchers have been working on developing a vaccine for many years. For prospective vaccinations, numerous trials have begun and ended, with differing outcomes in terms of safety and effectiveness. Over the years, researchers have made great progress, enabling patients living with HIV to take medications that can both help them live longer and reduce the risk that they would share HIV with their sexual partners.

Nevertheless, there may be advances in research and the medical field yet there is still no vaccine available to cure HIV because the virus is distinct and can change its appearance to evade antibodies' successful targeting. Since HIV may integrate into a host genome, it cannot be distinguished from the genome on its own. Consequently, this greatly restricts the methods by which an HIV vaccine can be developed.

But despite prolonged waiting for the undiscovered vaccine, there are necessary strategies such as condom and other contraceptive use, sharing no needles, and abstinence. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) and pre-and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) are examples of HIV prevention medications that can be taken.

Long was the history of the disease, but longer was each story of PLHIV who battled with people’s discrimination and perpetuated stigma. Time only can tell how many eyebrows were raised over the established sexual taboos. Nevertheless, time can also be the cure as this generation will open more minds about what used to be a sensitive topic.

Getting tested for HIV/AIDS does not equate to having one; raising awareness about HIV/AIDS does not mean you experience it firsthand; making a difference towards destigmatizing HIV/AIDS does not add up to getting it. It is paramount to the nature of humans as vulnerable beings specifically to diseases and illness. Moreover, it is rather humane to spread the perks of being tested regardless of the result. Championing the advocacy also needs collective support both on the part of ordinary citizens and the authorities that have greater resources.

As the world stirs to a journey where a remedy for the said disease is slowly being invented, we may also stir to a path of understanding and acceptance. In the long run, HIV and AIDS-positive Filipinos are ailing patients. With how the nation perceives them, the virus, and the disease, they suffer double. Patients of medical illness, victims of societal disease.