2011-Jan-07, Philippines’ HIV/AIDS problem worries UN

MANILA, Philippines—On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most alarming, the HIV-AIDS problem in the Philippines is now "five nationally."

But it is "already eight to nine in specific sites (nationwide) mainly associated with officially-reported HIV prevalence," according to Teresita Marie Bagasao, country coordinator of the United Nations Program on HIV-AIDS (UNAIDS).

At the national level, "only those who are aware of the situation have expressed grave concern over the sharp increase in reported new HIV infections."

"But most are not alarmed, possibly due to lack of visible information, as well as being lulled into a false sense of security by the average national HIV prevalence of under 0.1 percent," Bagasao told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

However, "some places (nationwide) that have reported more than four percent to as much as 53 percent HIV prevalence among its most-at-risk groups are alarmed and are actively pursuing solutions to address their situation, described as concentrated epidemics," she said.

With only five years into the deadline to achieve its Millennium Development Goals (MDG), the country continues to fall short of its sixth MDG, which is to halt and reserve the spread of the dreaded HIV-AIDS disease, Bagasao emphasized.

Citing official reports, Bagasao disclosed that here, new infection rates were going up, not down.

"In the 2010 Global AIDS report released by UNAIDS in late November, the Philippines was one of seven nations in the world which reported over 25 percent in new HIV infections between 2001 and 2009, whereas other countries have either stabilized or shown significant declines in the rate of new infections," she noted.

Among all countries in Asia, only the Philippines and Bangladesh were now reporting increases in HIV cases, with others either stable or decreasing, said Bagasao.

Late last year, UNAIDS also reported that the number of new cases of HIV-AIDS around the world had dropped by about one-fifth over the past decade.

For its part, the Department of Health had reported there were 1,305 confirmed new HIV infections during the first 10 months of 2010, compared with 835 for the whole of 2009.

Sex between men accounted for nearly 80 percent of all the 2010 cases, and more than half of those infected were aged between 20 and 29.

The human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, leads to AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, a condition in which the body's immune system is attacked, weakened, and disabled by the virus, ultimately leading to death.

Aside from the increasing number of HIV cases, there are other factors contributing to the problem, said Bagasao: "Continued risk behaviors and pervasive misconceptions among most-at-risk (sectors) despite seemingly high knowledge point to inadequacy of current behavior change interventions in converting knowledge to behavior; and the stigma attached to AIDS, which is possibly linked association with socially-unacceptable behaviors, as well as discrimination actually experienced by people living with HIV."

The UNAIDS official pointed out that "although the national AIDS response is backed by Republic Act 8504, or the National AIDS Law, the country, through the Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC), has yet to define its prevention strategy and set standards of quality."

"Programs remain (either) unfunded or under-funded and have not been able to keep up with the change and pace in HIV transmission...More than half of program funding come from external sources. The program needs a clear investment plan to address not only resource gaps but also sustainability of existing efforts," said Bagasao.

Overall, it is "still largely a health-focused response...Other sectors need to step up their response."

Bagasao cited a UN General Assembly progress report on the Philippines, released in April 2010, which "indicated that programs have not reached set universal access targets of getting to at least 60 percent of at-risk groups with prevention programs."

There was also a "general lack of awareness, possibly linked to inadequate communication programs to sensitize stakeholders on this issue."

Based on the assessment of UNAIDS, PNAC has also made some notable accomplishments, like the "passage of RA 8504, the well-articulated AIDS Medium-Term Plan 4, commitment to work with civil society, including people living with HIV-AIDS, and the holding of the recent AIDS summit," among others.

Last month, PNAC launched its AIDS Medium-Term Plan (AMTP5) for 2011 to 2016, which UNAIDS said would "hopefully bring back on track the country's response to MDG 6."

"AMTP5 has to be operationalized and implemented," said Bagasao.

For its part, UNAIDS "will continue to harness a coordinated UN support to government and non-government sectors, both at national and local levels, to strengthen response," she said.

"MDG 6 should be seen as part of the whole MDGs that countries have to work towards and show significant progress by 2015. As other countries have shown, five years can spell a difference if the adequate investments in the right programs are put in place now. In a sense, 2011 ushers in the countdown to 2015," Bagasao added.

In June, the UN Millennium Campaign announced that the Philippines did not make the list of 20 countries that made the most in achieving the MDGs because the government was off-track in 40 percent of the 21 indicators in attaining the MDGs.

According to the campaign's report card, the 20 nations that have made the most overall progress on achieving the MDGs were: Benin, Mali, Ethiopia, Gambia, Malawi, Vietnam, Uganda, Nepal, India, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Honduras, Mauritania, Ghana, China, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Togo.

Eleven of the 20 countries are among Africa's poorest states.

The Philippines' performance in meeting its eight MDGs has remained "generally low," according to Renaud Meyer, UN Development Program country director.

Meyer told a recent public forum that "accelerating progress to attain the MDGs requires increased resources to deliver what has been promised to those for whom the MDGs are not a reality."

The MDGs are international development goals that all 192 UN member-states and at least 23 international organizations have agreed to achieve by 2015.

Aside from fighting HIV-AIDS, malaria and other killer diseases, the other MDGs are eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality and empowering women; reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; ensuring environmental sustainability; and developing a global partnership for development.

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