“When I finally saw a doctor, I was told that I only have four to five years to live. Some PLHIVs who I knew back then have died because of the disease. But I am still alive because of the support and love of my children and my family.”
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – They are despised, avoided, and stigmatized. They are accused of being promiscuous, immoral and irresponsible. People living with HIV (PLHIV) are dealing not only with their illness; they are also dealing with the people around them as they are immediately judged or even persecuted.
“PLHIV are highly stigmatized because it is known to be acquired through sex. PLHIV are being accused as promiscuous or not being faithful to their partners. But there are PLHIV who are loyal to their partners and yet they are infected with HIV,” said Karl Agbulos, founding member of the Take the Test Project, a pioneer on-site HIV counseling and testing center.
Elena Felix, a mother of four and a PLHIV, said: “In our country, PLHIV are viewed as unfaithful to their partners. But that is not always the case. I have been faithful, but I got infected because my partner was infected.”
According to Action for Health Initiatives (ACHIEVE), discrimination against PLHIV in the Philippines is pervasive. ACHIEVE said discriminatory acts continue to be reported despite the presence of the Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998 or Republic Act 8504. The RA 8504 was considered as one of the world’s first laws on HIV and AIDS.
According to ACHIEVE, PLHIV continue to suffer from social exclusion, gossip, insults and name-calling; loss of rights, livelihood and decision-making powers; and isolation and poor treatment.
Felix was discriminated against, humiliated and was even denied medical attention once. “I never thought that even if I have been a good mother to my children, I would be treated like a bad person because of my illness,” Felix said.
Felix was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1994 when she came back to the Philippines to renew her working visa. She was an overseas Filipino worker back then, making a living in the Middle East to provide for her four children. “I am a single parent. I had to earn so that I could provide for my children,” Felix said. It was her partner whom she met abroad who infected her with HIV.
When Felix found out about her illness, she did not see a doctor for more than 10 years until she felt a lump in her stomach in 2005. “I got scared. I did not want to see a doctor,” she said. The lump in her stomach was apparently a myoma and she had to undergo an operation.
“Because they are doctors I disclosed to them my condition. They referred me to a hospital that will do the procedure; in the referral form the doctor placed Hepatitis instead of HIV because they said it is more acceptable. So my supposed operation was scheduled but then at the last minute the surgeons backed out. They referred me again to another hospital and I finally underwent the operation.”
At the hospital, Felix said, nurses did not help her change to her hospital clothes. Her daughter, who was with her during her operation, helped her instead. She saw how Felix was despised not only by the hospital personnel but also by the people around them.
“A nursed asked my daughter: ‘Do you know that your mother has AIDS?’ When I was taken out of the operating room, the nurse said out loud ‘This patient has AIDS.’ A sign was placed on my bed, which read, ‘Practice Universal Precaution.’ My side of the bed was never cleaned. I really wanted to get out of the hospital immediately because it is not only me who’s hurting but my family too.”
When Felix saw that her children too were being affected by the stigma, she struggled and decided to fight against it. “I learned that there are non-governmental organizations that are working with PLHIV. I educated myself about the disease and I learned that to be HIV positive does not mean that it would be the end of my life.”
Felix was part of the founding of Babae Plus, an organization of women living with HIV. The group started with 14 members and now they are 200. “More women who have been living with HIV are now open to declare their status. They are more than willing to be educated and be well informed about their illness.”
Micheal David Tan, publishing editor of online LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) magazine said, “The thinking here in the Philippines is still backward when it comes to this issue. HIV is not a disease of gays, or the unfaithful partner, or sex workers or just because one is promiscuous. There are PLHIV who did not have multiple partners. There are also those who did not engage in unprotected sex. Data will show that among the HIV cases are people who injected drugs, and just recently there is a notable increase of HIV cases among males who had sex with males,” David said in a bloggers forum sponsored by Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development Foundation, Inc. (PLCPD).
Tan said it is important that there is information and awareness-raising on how HIV is transmitted and to encourage those who are vulnerable to the disease to take the HIV antibody test to know their status so that the spread of the disease can be prevented. However, because there is stigma against PLHIV, there is always wariness to take the HIV test.
Wanggo Gallaga, son of director Peque Gallaga, who is HIV positive said knowing if one has HIV or not could stop the spread of the disease. He believes he was infected in 2005 but found out only later in 2008 because he did not take the test earlier. When he learned about his status, he went public to know if he infected someone but no one came out. “People’s health can become someone else’s problem. If we know what our status is, then we can do something about it,” Gallaga said.
Tan, who is also the executive director of the Bahaghari Center for LGBT Research, Education and Advocacy, reaches out to different communities to disseminate information about HIV and AIDS.
“We also educate the relatives of the PLHIV. That way the stigma against them is lessened especially because their families too will be affected once they know their loved ones are infected with HIV,” Tan said.
This is true for Felix. “When I finally saw a doctor, I was told that I only have four to five years to live. Some PLHIVs who I knew back then have died because of the disease. But I am still alive because of the support and love of my children and my family.” She added, When I am down, I will myself to live because of them.”
Take the test
Felix encourages those who have engaged in unprotected sex to take the HIV test. “Once you know your status, there are organizations like ours that are willing to help,” Felix said.
According to the March 2013 AIDS Registry data, there are 12,791 cumulative HIV positive individuals since 1984. The UNAIDS estimates a total of 28,072 actual cases in the Philippines.
“Such discrepancy in figures is due to the hesitation of individuals to have themselves tested of the virus. Since stigma and discrimination against PLHIV is too rampant, people don’t want to be tested.
Worse, 50 percent of those who take the test do not go back for the results,” Ms. Teresita Marie Bagasao, UNAIDS country coordinator, said.
“You cannot distinguish PLHIV from a person who is not infected. The only way to know is to take the test,” Bagasao added during the PLCPD’s bloggers forum.
The PLCPD, last June, launched YES2Test, a campaign encouraging voluntary testing for HIV. The group tapped bloggers for this campaign. Tan said bloggers could help spread HIV-related information. “They speak the language of the people, particularly of their target population; bloggers could help encourage people to get themselves tested. And this is a key step to take in the fight against HIV, because when people already know their status, then they will know what to do – if the result is negative, then they can practice safer sex; and if positive, then they can take the steps to stay healthy, or for others around them to also be kept healthy.”